Mount St. Joe senior Carly Monzo (right) guards Rustin’s Courtney Warley in last Saturday’s third-place playoff. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Mount St. Joe senior Carly Monzo (right) guards Rustin’s Courtney Warley in last Saturday’s third-place playoff. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Mount St. Joseph Academy’s basketball team is moving on from regional competition and into the PIAA Class AAAA state tournament, but not – as the Magic had hoped – as the number one seed out of District 1.

Seeded first for the start of the district tournament, the Mount lost a defensive battle in the semifinal round last Wednesday, falling by a single point (34-33) to number-four Spring-Ford High School, the defending state champion and winner of the last two district titles.

That setback at Harriton High School on the Main Line sent the Magic into a Saturday playoff for the third and fourth seed coming out of District 1. This contest was played at Colonial Elementary School, where the Mounties bounced back to claim the third spot with a 60-48 win over Bayard Rustin High School, originally the seventh seed for the district tourney. In their state debut, the Magic (26-3 overall) will face Cardinal O’Hara, the District 12 third seed, on Friday.

After squeaking past Mount St. Joe in the District 1 semifinals, Spring-Ford (23-6) was unable to seize a third straight championship, losing Friday’s final to North Penn High School, 63-51.

Following the Mount’s Saturday victory in the third-place game, senior forward Carly Monzo said that the team had been determined to bounce back from the one-point loss to Spring-Ford.

“Our main thing is that we never want to lose two games in a row, because after that it can spiral down,” she explained. “Today we didn’t come out quite as strong as we wanted to, but we found ways to get the win. They came back at us a couple times, but we were able to keep the lead.”

Monzo helped get the Mount off to a solid start against Rustin, scoring 12 of her 14 total points in the first half as the Magic built a 33-21 lead by the intermission. Senior guard Alex Louin (15 rebounds) divided her 27 points almost equally between the halves, while sophomore Libby Tacka and junior Mary Kate Ulasewicz (both guards) finished with seven and five points, respectively.

Four points from senior starting forward Colleen Steinmetz and three from sophomore reserve forward Sarah Wills completed the scoring for the winners. Two more sophomores, guard Caitlyn Cunningham and forward Kristen Lucas, also saw action as the Mount had several starters get into foul trouble.

“It’s good to have the offense balanced and have everyone be a threat, because then the other team can’t shut you down by taking away one or two people,” pointed out Monzo. “Obviously, the bench players are the team’s future, so for them to get time in an important game is really good. They did a great job for us today, and they really help us in practice, because they’re good players who can really challenge the starters.”

The Mounties were obviously in a much better frame of mind late Saturday afternoon than they’d been after the heartbreaker against Spring-Ford three days earlier.

Spring-Ford had beaten the Magic in the 2013 district championship game, but in a regular-season meeting this winter, the Mounties won a hard-fought battle, 39-34. All signs pointed toward another close contest in last week’s district semifinal.

Getting the early jump on Spring-Ford with lay-ups by Tacka and Louin, the Mount remained on a roll until the first period concluded with the Magic holding a 16-7 advantage.

All five starters scored for Mount St. Joe as steals fueled the transition offense. Tacka, Monzo, and Ulasewicz all notched lay-ups in transition, and Louin looked to be in fine fettle as she added a three-pointer and a free throw to her initial drive to the hoop.

About the only thing that didn’t go right for the Mounties was when they tipped the ball into Spring-Ford’s basket while vying for a defensive rebound. Later, Steinmetz secured a rebound and converted for two points, rounding out the first-quarter tally.

The Lady Rams obviously knew they had to take better care of the basketball, and going forward, they did. Perimeter offense quickly got them back into the thick of things in the second period. Junior guard Abby Beyer stroked a pair of three-pointers, sophomore Molly Hines added another trey, and star senior guard Sammy Stipa (a Lafayette signee) hit a long “two” from the right baseline.

The game leveled out at 18-all, but a late jumper from the lane by Louin assured the Magic of a halftime lead, 20-18. A devoted man-to-man defensive team like the Mount, Spring-Ford felt it necessary to switch to a zone, and did a good job of denying the Mount outside looks most of the time. Of the five Mount field goals scored over the last three quarters (along with seven free throws), only one came from more than eight feet away from the basket.

Over the first three minutes of the third quarter, Louin and Ulasewicz sandwiched field goals around a pair of free throws by Monzo, and at 26-18, the Magic had their largest lead since the opening stanza. This time it was Spring-Ford’s forwards who would help redress the balance; senior Shelby Mueller provided a lay-up and a free throw, and junior Maggie Locke ran the floor for a transition bucket to get the Rams back within three points for the start of the final round, 26-23.

It would be a tooth-and-nail tussle from there on out. The score was tied at 28-28 and then at 30-all, as the Magic derived their four points from a four-for-four effort at the foul line by Louin. Both teams cooled off at the charity stripe after that, with the Mount coming up empty on two one-and-one chances, and Spring-Ford failing to cash in on one similar opportunity.

Stipa moved the Rams ahead with a short jumper, then junior Julia Roshelli furnished the eventual game-winning basket, romping down the court and hauling in a teammate’s lob pass to score on the break. The Mount called time-out, trailing 34-30 with 2:36 left to play.

Crossing midcourt with the ball, Spring-Ford’s Stipa tried to elude Louin with a crossover dribble, but the Mount senior poked the ball loose and dashed down for a lay-up. In the process, Stipa committed her fourth foul of the day (her team’s ninth), and when Louin converted the free throw, the final score of 34-33 was on the board.

With a flagrant push-off while handling the ball, Stipa picked up her exit visa with a fifth personal foul. This also put the Magic in the double bonus, although they did not immediately proceed to the line since it had been an offensive foul. The Rams called a time-out with 51.7 seconds to go, but then were whistled down for a back-court violation.

On a lengthy final possession for the Mount, two missed shots were rebounded by the Magic, but on a third attempt Spring-Ford’s Beyer came away with the ball. She was fouled, but with only half-a-second now left in the game, it didn’t matter that she missed the first shot of her one-and-one.

Many basketball observers felt at the time that the Mount vs. Spring-Ford match-up was the “true” championship game, and that the meeting occurred one round too early due to the effect on the bracket of an artificially high seeding for Garnet Valley (a number-two seed which lost in the second round).

After reaching the title bout by beating seventh-seeded Rustin in the other Wednesday semifinal (74-59), number-three North Penn proved in a convincing manner that it deserved to be a district finalist.

Scoring more points than any Spring-Ford opponent this year save New York’s Christ the King High School, the Maidens dispatched the Rams, 63-51, at Villanova University in Friday night’s championship game.

The following afternoon, Mount St. Joe the court against Rustin, a team they’d defeated back in December, 59-42. Monzo, Ulasewicz and Tacka led the Magic out to a 9-3 lead against the Golden Knights, who appeared a little flat at the outset. Rustin came back within three points late in the period, but at the end a short jumper by Louin made it 13-8.

It was Louin’s first field goal of the game, and she was pretty much unstoppable after that. With a two-three pointers, free throws, and even a put-back, she rang up a dozen points in the second quarter alone, and with Monzo continuing to produce, the Mount was able to rest on a 12-point cushion at halftime.

The lay of the land changed a bit in the third quarter, as Rustin’s Adashia Franklyn, a strong senior forward, began to go hard to the hoop. She would net 13 of her team-high 16 points in the second half, and drew some fouls against the Magic in the process. MSJ’s Steinmetz picked up her third personal 90 seconds into the third quarter, and later Monzo and Ulasewicz would have difficulties in this regard.

Coming off a 42-34 lead at the three-quarter mark, the Magic got the margin back to double figures (45-34) with a lay-up and free-throw by Tacka. After that, though, Franklyn and junior Casey Warley led the Knights on an 8-2 run that made it a five-point affair with four-and-a-half minutes remaining in the game.

Rustin would get no closer, as a three-second sequence stopped the Mount’s slide. With the Magic in the foul bonus, Steinmetz made both shots on a one-and-one, then when the Knights inbounded the ball from their defensive baseline, Louin immediately stole it and scored a lay-up as the clock crossed over the four-minute mark.

With 3:52 showing, MSJ’s Monzo committed her fifth foul and Rustin freshman Lexi Zavitsky made both of her free throws. Things went downhill for the West Chester team after that, as they committed their 10th team foul to put the Mounties in the double bonus. The Magic collected their final nine points from the foul line as Louin shot seven-for-eight and Ulasewicz made two of four free throws.

For Rustin, Franklyn’s offensive efforts were complemented by 10 points apiece from junior Katie O’Hare and freshman Courtney Warley.

The Mount’s first opponent in the state tourney, Cardinal O’Hara, lost to Rustin, 55-42, back in early December. The Magic won’t be taking the Lions lightly, though, since O’Hara is a program steeped in postseason experience.