You can see the mental wheels turning as the Mount’s Alex Louin makes a mid-air decision. The junior scored 19 points in a District 1 semifinal victory last week. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Last Wednesday night at Norristown High School, a large, colorfully dressed crowd of Mount St. Joseph Academy supporters was thrilled to see the Magic post a double-digit victory in a PIAA District 1 semifinal game that many basketball prognosticators felt could go either way. It was fortunate that the Mount players and fans were able to thoroughly enjoy that evening, because the trip to Villanova University two days later turned out to be not such a fun ride.

On Wednesday, the second-seeded MSJ Magic began a pivotal surge at the end of the third quarter, and went on to post a 48-36 victory over Upper Dublin High School, the three seed for the Class AAAA district playoffs. Unfortunately for the Mounties, the seeding committee was validated again in Friday’s final, when number one Spring-Ford High School repeated as District 1 champion by soundly defeating the Magic, 51-30.

Mount St. Joe claimed the district crown in 2011, and last year the Magic lost to Downingtown West High School in the quarterfinals. Well before taking the court for last week’s semifinals and finals, the Mount had earned a place among the 10 teams that will represent District 1 in the 2013 PIAA state tournament. Emerging as the runner-up, the Magic will enter States as the District 1 second seed, with a 26-3 overall record.

In a regular-season meeting back in January, the Spring-Ford Lady Rams had beaten the Mount in a much closer contest, 39-32. Ironically, the second setback at the hands (hooves?) of the Lady Rams slotted Mount St. Joe into a state tournament opener against the only other team that has beaten the Magic this winter, Cumberland Valley High School.

In the finals of a tip-off tournament at Cumberland Valley, just west of Harrisburg, the host Eagles topped Mount St. Joe in the second game of the season, 55-50. Seeded third for the District 3 playoffs, Cumberland Valley lost in the quarterfinals, and eventually earned the district’s number five spot for the state tourney.

For last week’s District 1 semifinal at Norristown, fans from both schools began massing in their designated bleacher sections more than half-an-hour before game time, and during warm-ups the Upper Dublin boys delighted in counting aloud the practice shots missed by the Mounties.

The Cardinals, after losing their season opener, won 25 straight games before falling to the Mount.

MSJ’s Louin did not deposit a field goal until the very end of the opening quarter, and Upper Dublin seemed caught off-guard somewhat when freshman guard Libby Tacka opened the scoring with a three-pointer from the left corner and lofted two more treys in short order. That helped the Magic (who never trailed) enjoy an 11-4 advantage a little over three minutes into the action.

“She jump-started us,” said MSJ senior forward Meg Geatens. “It showed them that any one of us could come out and score on a given night.”

The teams traded points in the remainder of the first round, bumping the score up to 15-8. Louin, who’d dropped in a pair of free throws early on, rounded out the scoring for the quarter by driving the lane and pulling up for a little jumper at the buzzer.

The initial run for the Magic continued to loom large as the teams ended up 10-10 for the second round. Flamboyant Cardinals guard Curtrena Goff picked up her second foul and fellow senior Lauren Rothfield acquired her third during the period. Upper Dublin struggled much of the night against the MSJ defense, often turning the ball over by making iffy passes that probably would’ve found their targets against lesser teams.

“Today the key was shutting down Goff, because we knew she’s what holds their team together,” Geatens said afterwards. “We also focused on keeping Regan Gallagher off the boards; we know her so well and we know that she can rebound the ball and put it back in.”

Just 10 seconds into the second quarter, one of Rothfield’s infractions sent Louin to the foul line to sink a pair, then UD’s Gallagher, a junior who played at Mount St. Joseph as a ninth and 10th-grader, scored the first two of her nine points off of a nice move in the paint.

The Cardinals’ Brianna Spector, a senior forward, bagged a triple from the left wing, but she was only able to add one point the rest of the way. After her trey tightened the score to 17-13, the Magic started cashing in on Upper Dublin fouls, making six straight free throws.

As the final 90 seconds of the half began, UD’s Goff set her feet on the right flank and put down a “three.” Louin went coast-to-coast for the Magic off of a steal, but Goff responded with a steal that led to her own breakaway bucket with five seconds remaining. It was the second of her three field goals in the game, and it fixed the scoreboard at 25-18 for the intermission.

Louin had 10 points and Geatens had six for the leaders, each going six-for-six at the free throw line. Goff chalked up seven for the Cardinals.

Coming out of the break, Gallagher got Upper Dublin going right away with a lay-up, and the output from the Mount St. Joseph side of the stands became slightly less deafening as the Magic scored just one point (by Louin) over the first four-and-a-half minutes of the third stanza.

After Goff made a foul shot, Rothfield couldn’t locate the cylinder on two more Upper Dublin free throws, but she rebounded her second miss and lifted the ball back up and in. The Magic called time out, now ahead by just three points with 4:43 to go in the quarter, and soon after play resumed junior Kayla McAneney canned a three-pointer for the Cardinals, who finally pulled even on the scoreboard at 26-all.

Confidence grew in the Cardinal crowd as two Mount foul shots missed the mark.

Those looking for an MSJ response probably had their eyes on Louin. She would make a statement in the closing quarter, but in the last half of the third round other Mounties rode to the rescue. Driving in from the left, junior forward Carly Monzo went airborne for a very athletic-looking lay-up.

After that, guard Adrienne Cellucci said “My turn!” The Ursinus-bound senior traded three-point buckets with Goff (the Cardinal star’s last field goal of the night), and then hit a shorter jumper. UD’s Spector finished her scoring for the game with a free throw, but with two seconds to go, Cellucci stuck a little jump shot from the left baseline and sent the Magic into the fourth quarter with a 35-30 lead.

The Cardinals actually came out of the third period with a net gain of two points, but they’d lost momentum. Cellucci’s final basket in the third stanza proved to be the beginning of a 12-0 run for Mount St. Joe.

Geatens got the ball to Monzo for a lay-up, and Louin penetrated the lane twice for field goals. As the Magic got into the bonus, Louin pulled both points from a one-and-one with 2:54 remaining, then Monzo’s breakaway basket made it 45-30. Upper Dublin got three points apiece from Goff (14 total) and Gallagher (nine points) over the last two minutes, but that simply trimmed back the final margin to an even dozen.

In the MSJ scorebook, Louin’s game-high 19 points was followed by nine points for Tacka, eight for Cellucci, and six apiece for Geatens and Monzo.

In the second game that night, Cinderella stumbled. Surprise semifinalist Bayard Rustin High School was swept away 63-30 by Spring-Ford, which advanced to meet the Mount. Back in the 2011-2012 season, the Lady Rams beat the Magic 46-38 in the regular season and 38-31 in the second round of the state tournament.

A week later, when the Lady Rams got their heads handed to them by Archbishop Carroll in the PIAA semifinals, victorious coach Chuck Creighton was quoted as saying that Carroll had been well prepared to face Spring-Ford by its encounters with tough out-of-state opponents. Many thin-skinned supporters of teams with less diverse schedules took umbrage at his frank (and accurate) remarks, but the Spring-Ford coaching staff responded in a much more constructive fashion.

Looking towards a season when almost all of their principal players would be juniors and seniors, the Lady Rams geared up for another run at a state title by scheduling rivals beyond the boundaries of Pennsylvania, and making a trip to a holiday tournament in Florida.

After an early loss to the Academy of Notre Dame locally, their only setback came against a traditional Long Island power, St. Anthony’s.

At Villanova last Friday, Spring-Ford showed the versatility of its offense, getting many of its points from a different set of players than those who had powered its earlier win over Mount St. Joe. Back in January, the Lady Rams received 36 of their 39 points from forwards, and in the rematch their guards combined for 30. Backcourt bookends Sammy Stipa (a junior) and Sammi Haas (a senior) had not scored at all in the first encounter, and last Friday they put up 15 and five points, respectively.

Spring-Ford got off to a 5-0 start before a short jumper by Geatens got Mount St. Joe on the board with 4:41 left in the first quarter. Over the next three minutes or so the Lady Rams had a 7-5 edge in scoring, with the Mount marking down a three-pointer and a score on a put-back for Tacka. In the final minute two steals by Louin led to lay-ups for herself and for Monzo, cutting the lead to one point at 12-11. Just before the buzzer, the Magic were playing a few steps off of Spring-Ford senior guard Brittany Moore on the right wing, and she used the space to sink a jumper, making it 14-11.

The Lady Rams slowly added four free throws for an 18-11 tally, forcing a Mount time out. Spring-Ford’s Courtney Hinant (five points total) missed two foul shots, but Louin made a pair for the Magic. MSJ junior forward Colleen Steinmetz popped in a little jumper from the lane with 4:27 to go in the half, and the Mount was back within three points of the leaders, 18-15.

Aware that the 5’11” Louin would have to use her height inside to try and counter their taller line-up (this in addition to her regular guard duties), the Lady Rams made the MSJ standout labor hard whenever and wherever they could. After her second-quarter free throws, she would record only two more points, in the middle of the fourth quarter.

Just as problematic for the Mounties was the fact that no one else found the basket, either, including some players shooting relatively open lay-ups. From three points down in the middle of the second stanza, Mount St. Joe would not get any more balls to fall until early in the fourth quarter, making for a scoring drought of 13 minutes, 36 seconds.

Four different Lady Rams located the cylinder before the half ended at 32-15, and the Magic act was truly over when they were unable to make their offense reappear during the 0-11 third quarter.

The gap between the district’s first and second teams grew as large as 30 points in the fourth period before both ballclubs emptied their benches onto the floor. The production of the Spring-Ford guards was complemented by forwards Shelby Mueller (a junior) and Sarah Payonk (a senior), who logged nine and seven points, respectively.

MSJ’s Tacka, a model of consistency, duplicated her nine-point performance of two nights earlier, and six points apiece came from Louin and Geatens while Monzo added four. In the final half-minute, a free throw from sophomore Katie Maransky and a long, buzzer-beating runner by junior Gen Hagedorn boosted the Magic’s total to 30 points.

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