In a defensive battle for the Catholic Academies crown, Mount St. Joe closes ranks to try and stop Gwynedd Mercy’s high scorer. From left are Kristen Lucas, league MVP Mary Kate Ulasewicz, Gwynedd’s Erica DeCandido, Caitlyn Cunningham, and Sarah Wills. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

In a defensive battle for the Catholic Academies crown, Mount St. Joe closes ranks to try and stop Gwynedd Mercy’s high scorer. From left are Kristen Lucas, league MVP Mary Kate Ulasewicz, Gwynedd’s Erica DeCandido, Caitlyn Cunningham, and Sarah Wills. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

During regular-season play in the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies, the Mount St. Joseph Academy Magic won by five points over visiting Gwynedd Mercy, and later the Monarchs avenged that loss with a six-point victory on their home court against MSJ.

Last Wednesday the two teams met again in the finals of the AACA tournament, and this game was closer still. When a desperation three-point shot fell short for Gwynedd just before the buzzer, the Magic walked away with a 29-26 win and their third straight league title.

Junior guards Caitlyn Cunningham and Libby Tacka finished with 10 and nine points, respectively, and five were added by senior point guard Mary Kate Ulasewicz. Ulasewicz, MSJ’s intense, ‘D’-you-up floor general who is headed for the U.S. Naval Academy Preparatory School, was named the AACA’s 2014-15 MVP during the All-League team announcements that followed the final game.

Gwynedd received a game-high 11 points from junior forward Erica DeCandido and 10 from freshman point guard Maura Conroy. Conroy began the game with a pair of free throws that gave Gwynedd a 2-0 edge. The Monarchs would lead just one more time, going ahead 16-15 early in the third quarter. After that, they tied the contest twice, 18-18 later in the third round, and 22-all with two-and-a-half minutes left to play.

The two teams had ended the regular season with matching 12-1 records, the odd number of games stemming from the fact that the league’s smallest school, Sacred Heart, plays each of the others once instead of twice.

The Magic took a 20-2 overall record into last Tuesday’s league semifinal against third-seeded St. Basil, slipping behind 3-5 over the first eight minutes, but then roaring back in a 22-8 second quarter. The Mount went on to win 51-36 behind 19 points from Ulasewicz and 11 from Cunningham.

The second of Tuesday’s semifinals (pushed back one night due to the icy conditions on Monday evening) pitted Gwynedd against number four Merion Mercy. The Monarchs had drawn the top seed for the tourney since they’d beaten the Magic by a greater margin than the Mount had beaten them in their regular-season series.

Merion kept pace early, then the Monarchs separated themselves with an 18-0 run and eventually won, 50-30. DeCandido put up 12 points for the winners, and junior shooting guard Brigit Coleman was close behind, with 11.

Some people who did not attend the final remarked that, in the main, it must have been a boring game due to the low score. It really wasn’t, though. Well-acquainted, the two teams knew how to defend one another. Often, when a shot was missed and an offensive rebound was collected, the team in possession would set up again and cautiously begin to probe the defense once more. In this manner, a good deal of time passed without a lot of scoring, and back-and-forth turnovers also drained the clock without moving the score.

If the on-court action lacked a high-scoring brand of excitement, there was no question that a playoff atmosphere was generated by the large cheering sections from both schools. Student supporters were splendidly dressed and painted, and they screamed almost non-stop from the bleachers as late arrivals squeezed into lines along the walls of the La Salle High School gym.

After Conroy’s early free throws for Gwynedd, a “three” by Ulasewicz got the Mount on the board. Midway through the first quarter, MSJ senior forward Emily Carpenter picked up her second personal foul, and Gwynedd’s DeCandido made one of two shots from the charity stripe. Junior forward Kristen Lucas, who subbed in for Carpenter, scored off a rebound, but then she fouled at the other end (already the Mount’s fifth infraction) and this time DeCandido made both freebies for a 5-5 tie.

From the top of the key, Cunningham hoisted a three-point shot that dropped in with a minute-and-a-half left in the first frame, and the period ended with a 10-5 MSJ advantage after Tacka targeted two free throws.

Each team would take 10 foul shots during the first half. The Monarchs, hitting nine of theirs, were able to stay in contention despite making just one field goal in the first 16 minutes. The Magic, on the other hand, missed a chance to build up a significant lead in this low-scoring affair by hitting just three of its ten free throws. Mount St. Joe would be 8/16 from the line for the night, and Gwynedd ended up at 13/14.

The Monarchs drew a point closer in the second quarter, and the Magic, after leading 15-11 at the half, found themselves behind 16-15 after Gwynedd opened the third period with a lay-up by Maggie Cameron and a three-pointer from the left flank by another junior, Coleman.

Stealing the ball for the Mount, Cunningham was fouled while making a lay-up, and she put in her free throw, as well. On the foul line at the far end, DeCandido dropped in a pair to level the score at 18 apiece, but the Magic moved back in front on a drive by Ulasewicz near the midpoint of the period.

The personal foul situation suddenly deteriorated for the Mount, as Lucas was whistled twice in a one-minute span and now had four marks next to her name. Even in this department, the teams progressed almost neck-and-neck; the Monarchs’ Coleman was soon slapped with a fourth foul, and with 21 seconds left in the third frame Cunningham cashed in on two free throws.

That sent the Mounties into the fourth quarter with a 22-18 advantage, but half-a-minute into the final round GMA’s Conroy drove in from the right to score a lay-up. After doing penance on the bench for her fouls, MSJ’s Lucas returned to the court with four-and-a-half minutes left to play. This proved fortuitous for the Magic, because after Conroy tied the game at 22-all with another driving lay-up, Lucas scored off an offensive rebound at the other end, pushing Mount St. Joe ahead for good with two-and-a-half minutes remaining.

Next, the Gwynedd defenders apparently let their minds wander away from the Mount’s Tacka, who had not scored since the second quarter. Now, the Magic found the junior shooting guard open in the right corner. She bagged a three-pointer, and the Monarchs called time-out with 1:24 on the clock, now down 27-22.

Gwynedd missed two shots, then got the ball back again when a Mountie bumped it out of bounds over the baseline. Eventually, Cunningham committed her third foul (the Magic’s fifth), putting Conroy on the line to sink two shots with 23.8 seconds left. Still down by three, the Monarchs quickly put the Mount into the bonus by fouling Cunningham, who got both points out of the one-and-one.

With Gwynedd back up on offense, a Conroy lay-up wouldn’t fall, but teammate DeCandido grabbed the rebound and went back up to score to make it 29-26. Her team now called time-out, and then the players returned to the floor with 11.8 seconds remaining.

Tacka ran a route across midcourt to receive a long inbounds pass, then got the ball to Lucas. The forward was fouled, and missed the first shot of a one-and-one with 8.6 ticks up in lights.

GMA senior guard Emily Sullivan rebounded the errant Mount free throw, but at the other end a final heave from the three-point line came up short, and the Mount crowd erupted.

Following Cunningham, Tacka, and Ulasewicz on the Magic’s scoresheet were Lucas with four points, and junior Sarah Wills, with one. On the Gwynedd side, the output of DeCandido and Conroy was supplemented by three points from Coleman and two from Cameron.

UPDATE: Seeded third for the PIAA District 1 Class AAAA tournament, the Mount won a first-round game on Saturday against number 30 Methacton High School, 45-31. Cunningham had 18 points and Wills scored 10 for the host Magic, who moved on to face 19th-seeded Radnor. On the same afternoon, the Red Raiders staged a minor opening-round upset, 41-39, against fellow Central League member Strath Haven, which was seeded 14th.