by Tom Utescher
Opening its basketball season on the road last weekend, Mount St. Joseph Academy put the first two marks in its win column in a fairly businesslike manner and for the third year in a row brought home the championship trophy from the Methacton Lady Warriors Tip-Off Tournament.
The Magic rolled past Ridley High School in Friday’s semifinal round, 59-32, then, with a little more difficulty subdued host Methacton High in the finals on Saturday, 41-31.
Methacton had won its semifinal bout with Upper Darby High School, 56-5, and Upper Darby lost again in the tournament consolation game, which Ridley won, 65-20.
The Mount’s Caitlyn Cunningham, a senior who’s headed for Philadelphia University, filled the stat sheet in the season opener with 21 points, 10 rebounds, seven steals, and five assists. Her classmate Kristen Lucas, who scored seven points against Ridley, led the Mount offense in the finals the following day. She rang up 14 points, including 10 of the Magic’s 12 total points in the second half. Both players were named to the All-Tournament Team.
Libby Tacka, a senior guard who was an all-tourney pick at Methacton a year ago, scored 13 points in Friday’s contest and 10 in the championship game. She has already finalized her plans to play college basketball for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Tacka and Cunningham are the team co-captains this year.
Sarah Wills rounds out an experienced senior class for the Mount, which graduated point guard Mary Kate Ulasewicz and forward Emily Carpenter from last year’s starting five. The Magic were 25-6 overall last winter, winning the Catholic Academies crown for the third year in a row and finishing up in the second round of the Class AAAA state tournament.
One of last year’s leaders, Ulasewicz, became known for her tenacious defense, and veteran Mount head coach John Miller doesn’t foresee a letdown in that area. In the Methacton game he had Cunningham guard the Warriors’ high scorer, Ryan DeOrio, who finished with four points.
“The girls learn from each other; they see what went on the year before and they pick up on that,” explained Miller, who’s now in his 10th season at the Mount. “Since I’ve been here, it’s been our defense that wins games, and we were able to hold Methacton to 31 points.
“It’s also important to play good defense without fouling a lot,” he added, referring to the fact that in the tournament finals the Magic committed a total of eight infractions.
To launch the 2015-16 campaign, Miller had returning starters Cunningham, Tacka, and Wills on the floor with the two players who were first off the bench last season, Lucas and junior guard Julie Hoover. He also made frequent use of 5’11” junior guard Ashley Smith, who missed her sophomore season due to knee surgery.
From a modest 12-7 first-quarter lead in Friday’s opener against Ridley, the Magic pulled away in the second frame, outscoring the Green Raiders by 11 to lead 32-16 at halftime. The Delaware County club never got back in the game.
Following the lead of Cunningham and Tacka, Wills matched Lucas’ seven points, Smith scored five and Hoover four, and Norwood Fontbonne Academy alum Grace Gelone, also a junior, scored two points.
Coach Miller then watched part of the Methacton – Upper Darby semifinal, and took note of DeOrio.
“In the first of the half of their game she buried four “three’s”, so she has the ability to go off,” he observed. “You want to be aware of where she is, and try to make her put the ball on the floor.”
Primarily, Cunningham defended the Methacton markswoman man-to-man, and in the event of picks and screens, the other Mounties knew to keep track of the shooter’s whereabouts. She scored her only field goal of the first half on a drive in the second period while also acquiring three personal fouls before the intermission.
MSJ’s Wills scored seven of her nine total points in the opening quarter, and Lucas added two lay-ups, benefitting from alert passing by Wills and Tacka. The Magic were ahead 16-0 before Abby Penjuke got the home team on the board in the final seconds of the first frame.
Penjuke’s putback was followed by a short jumper of her own and two more Methacton buckets, tightening the score to 16-8 three minutes into the second round. The Magic got things under control with a 9-0 countersurge, which mixed in a three-pointer by Smith with three lay-ups by Tacka.
The Magic were generating a lot of transition offense, and while trying to slow them down, Methacton’s DeOrio picked up her third foul with 3:03 still to play in the second quarter. Fellow starter Jill Zerbe, a forward, committed her third personal in the final seconds of the half. Tacka had 10 points and Wills had seven at the break.
Methacton played better in the second half, and the Magic didn’t seem to have the same fire they’d displayed earlier.
The Warriors never came closer than 10 points, but as Coach Miller admitted later, “We were never able to really put them away. We executed the offense well, I thought our shot selection was good, but we missed a lot of easy shots that we usually make.”
He was happier with the defense, relating, “I told the girls just now that I thought we played excellent team defense. We were always in the right position if one of our players needed help.”
Most of the Mount’s eight third-quarter points came on three inside buckets by Lucas, but she also picked up her second, third, and fourth fouls of the game. The hosts’ DeOrio went into the fourth period with four personals, as well. Down 37-25 at the three-quarter mark, Methacton managed to trim two points off of its deficit during a low-scoring final round.
The Magic wound up with double-digit production from Lucas (14 points, 18 rebounds) and Tacka (10 points) along with nine points from Wills, five from Hoover, and two from Smith. Junior Jackie Cerchio led the Warriors with 12 points.
Next up for the Mounties would be a Tuesday visit from St. Hubert’s.
“We’re on an NBA schedule now,” Miller said. “We play Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday the next two weeks, and then the Tuesday before Christmas.”