Once the Mount cheerleaders and the Bodysuit Girls rushed the floor after the Catholic Academies final last week, the players themselves were lucky to get near the championship trophy. Here, league MVP Alex Louin (left rear with white headband) is surrounded by a band of devoted followers. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Once the Mount cheerleaders and the Bodysuit Girls rushed the floor after the Catholic Academies final last week, the players themselves were lucky to get near the championship trophy. Here, league MVP Alex Louin (left rear with white headband) is surrounded by a band of devoted followers. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

As practice was winding down last Wednesday afternoon for the Philadelphia University women’s basketball team, a diminutive white-haired lady in a purple sweater entered the gym alone and settled into the middle of the front row of bleachers.

Before long, Mount St. Joseph and St. Basil Academy would be out on the floor battling for the 2014 Catholic Academies championship, and the solitary purple-clad woman was the grandmother of MSJ senior star Alex Louin. Known universally as Betty, she has been one of the Magic’s most recognizable fans during Louin’s tenure.

The granddaughter did not disappoint, ringing up a game-high 18 points as the top-seeded Magic repeated as AACA champion, downing the number–two St. Basil Panthers, 42-30. Sophomore sharpshooter Libby Tacka also finished in double figures, with three three-point field goals accounting most of her 13 points for the night.

Junior guard Mary Kate Ulasewicz scored six points while senior forward Carly Monzo (a Loyola University signee) contributed five, and the Mount defense did the rest. St. Basil sophomore forward Karen Lapkiewicz furnished almost half of the Panthers’ 30-point total, coming away with 13 points, and senior Kate Skalski was next on the list, with seven. The Magic climbed to an overall record of 22-2, while St. Basil was 19-5.

One of Mount St. Joe’s losses came in a league battle with Villa Maria, but the Magic won all of their other AACA contests to claim the top seed for the tournament. St. Basil beat Villa twice, and those head-to-head wins gave the Panthers the second seed in the tournament over the Hurricanes, as both clubs finished up 10-4 in the AACA regular season.

In one of last Tuesday’s league semifinals, St. Basil topped Villa a third time, but had to go to overtime to reach a 32-26 verdict. The other semifinal was quite different in nature, as the Mount seized a 24-8 halftime lead over fourth-seeded Gwynedd Mercy and went on to win 42-20 behind 13 points from Louin and 10 from Monzo.

Not long before squaring off against St. Basil in the league title game, the Mounties learned that they were also the number one seed for the PIAA District 1 tournament in the quad-A class. For now, though, that wasn’t their area of emphasis.

“We weren’t looking ahead to Districts, we were definitely focused on getting this win tonight,” Louin said after the Academies final. “We knew they were going to come out aggressively and press us, but we knew that if our own defense stepped up, we would win the game.”

A highly-recruited six-foot guard who signed with Villanova University last November, Louin has been in the limelight for much of her Mount career. That’s not the case for her classmate Colleen Steinmetz, who worked long and hard to attain a starting spot at forward as a senior. She scored six points in the semifinal win over Gwynedd, and has hit baskets at key moments all season long as opponents tended to concentrate first on Louin, and then on Monzo and Tacka.

“The whole feeling at the tournament is really special when you’re a starter,” she noted. “The bench is intense, but when you’re in the game with everyone screaming like that, it’s 10 times better.”

A key defender for the MSJ soccer team in the fall, Steinmetz found time to upgrade her basketball skills to prepare for her last season of hoops.

“I worked really hard on my defense, and I worked on shooting the ball. With my shooting I concentrated on holding onto the ball hard until I let it go, and even when I was practicing on my own I pretended like I had someone right in my face.”

If she sees an opening to launch the ball, she no longer routinely defers to a teammate.

“I take my shots when I can get them, and I know Coach [John Miller] is behind me, so that helps a lot,” she said.

As the championship game got underway, St. Basil struck first on a drive by Molly Greenberg, then the Magic went ahead on consecutive lay-ups by Louin, who set up her second shot with a steal. She had also made good on the foul shot that was tacked onto her first scoring play.

Next, she unleashed a hyper-three from well past the arc on the left wing. After the Mount defense generated a 10-second half-court call against St. Basil, Louin penetrated to score again, singlehandedly thrusting the Magic ahead, 10-2.

The Panthers steadied themselves, and clawed back within one point of the leaders, 10-9. In the first quarter as a whole, SBA’s Lapkiewicz would put in two lay-ups, a baseline jumper, and a three-pointer, netting nine of her 13 total points in the opening segment.

Louin would leave the first quarter with 13 of her 18 already in the book, scoring on a spin move in the final seconds and adding a free throw in the same offensive sequence.

After the first frame ended with Mount St. Joe up 18-13, the scoreboard did not click over as quickly in the second round, but the Magic made a modest addition to their lead to rest on a 26-17 halftime cushion. Ulasewicz, who had knocked down a three-pointer in the first period, hit another one at the start of the second quarter. Following up on a pair of first-quarter free throws, Tacka registered her first field goal of the night from out at the three-point line. Monzo then joined in with a driving lay-up to complete the Magic’s halftime total.

With the largest enrollment of any school in the league (the Mount is the only Class AAAA program in the group) and a very high percentage of turnout from the student body, the Mount cheering section always seems to have rival schools at a disadvantage in the league tourney. They pour in by the busload, sporting face paint and gussied up in an imaginative variety of colorful costumes.

St. Basil rooters enthusiastically supported their team, too, but to be frank, it was difficult to hear them except at times when the Mountie mob was relatively quiet.

Panther fans had something to cheer about in the first five minutes of the third quarter. Tacka gave the Mount a three-pointer and a lay-up during this stretch, but St. Basil outscored the Magic 9-5, closing up the score to 31-26. A short jumper by Louin spread the score to 33-26 for the start of the final period.

On many of her drives, the lithe senior launches her long body relatively far from the basket, drifting in towards the hoop for leaning lay-ups. On one such play, her trajectory appeared to be even more horizontal than usual. Before she could get off a proper shot she collided with a few defenders and fell to the floor, where she remained for a few seconds. The Mount faithful were relieved to see her rise and rejoin the fray.

“I got hit on the lip and I got a little dizzy for a second,” she explained afterwards. “When I got up, I was a little confused. Once I got back on defense and then when I got a drink of water, I was okay.”

Although the game never came close to being a blow-out, an air of inevitability developed during the affair. It was one of those contests in which the leaders would be capable of addressing any serious challenge presented by their opponents.

Monzo nailed a jumper from the lane to start the Magic off in the fourth quarter, then a trey by the Panthers’ Skalski was matched by one from Tacka. Already, less than three minutes remained in the game when an SBA free throw made it 38-30.

The Panthers wouldn’t score again, and Mount St. Joe got into the foul bonus at the start of the final minute. Louin went three-for-four at the line and Monzo scored the final point of the night, then the Mount emptied its bench with 20 seconds to go.

Before long, a wave of purple tumbled from the stands onto the court. The fans were raucous and joyful, the players were gratified, and, naturally, Alex Louin’s grandma Betty was beaming.