Lauren Vesey, a Mount St. Joseph sophomore, fights past Villa Maria’s Julia Samar to launch a lay-up. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Less than two weeks after Mount St. Joseph lost to Villa Maria Academy by nearly 20 points in a regular-season game, the seeding for the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies tournament had the third-ranked Magic facing the number two Hurricanes again in a semifinal contest last Sunday afternoon at La Salle High School.

Although the Mounties had two regular starters playing with injuries, they gave a spirited performance against Villa, coming from nine points down late in the second quarter to take the lead in the third period. The ‘Canes quickly recovered, but the Magic were still just three points behind with two minutes left to play. Seven-for-eight foul-shooting helped the Hurricanes pull away down the stretch to win, 52-40.

“I told the girls I was really proud of the way they competed,” said first year MSJ head coach Jim Roynan as he left the postgame locker room. “I challenged them to do that before the game, and I told them, ‘don’t let their length and athleticism scare you.’ Once they got their feet under them, they battled the whole game. That was probably the best all-round game we’ve played, including the contributions we got from the bench.”

Villa Maria’s longtime mentor, Kathy McCartney, remarked, “All credit goes to the Mount – I thought they played really well and really hard. They played like underdogs and put it all out there, and thankfully we were able to answer them in the fourth quarter. I’m thrilled, because I feel that we took as good a shot as they could give us, and we were able to win by 12 points in the end.”

In early January, the Mount had suffered its first league loss at the hands of Villa Maria, 54-43, and at the end of the month the Magic succumbed to the Hurricanes again, 59-40. In between, Mount St. Joseph learned that senior guard Grace DiGiovanni would need knee surgery and was out for the duration of the season.

The Mount would lose rematches with St. Basil and Gwynedd Mercy, teams it defeated in the first round of AACA games. St. Basil and Villa Maria both finished the league schedule with 11-2 records, and the Mount and Gwynedd were both 9-4 (they all played just one game against Sacred Heart). For the AACA playoffs, two different tiebreaking criteria were employed to seed St. Basil first, Villa second, the Mount third and Gwynedd fourth.

Villa Maria, whose program had experienced an uncharacteristic lull for several seasons, began to return to form last winter, bolstered by a freshman class that includes current sophomore starters Paige Lauder and Morgan Warley.

Having seen the Magic twice already as she drew up the game plan for a third encounter in the AACA playoffs, McCartney revealed, “We thought we had more overall speed, so we wanted to get them into a track meet. It didn’t work all the time, but late in the game we had some success taking the ball from the wing right to the basket because of our quickness.”

Mount St. Joe had two of its customary starting seniors, Deirdre Regan and Megan Dodaro, playing with minor injuries. Junior Lauren Cunningham started in Dodaro’s place on Sunday, but the senior soon made an appearance off the bench.

Mount St. Joe’s Audrey Bryce (left) and Lauren Cunningham (right) battle Villa Maria’s Abby Walheim for a rebound. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Getting early points on a drive and then a three-pointer by sophomore guard Lauren Vesey, the Magic were tied with the Hurricanes at 5-5 a few minutes in. With just under half-a-minute remaining in the first quarter, an 11-all deadlock was broken when VMA junior Abby Walheim scored in transition, putting the ‘Canes up 13-11.

When the Magic appeared in danger of falling significantly behind in the first four minutes of the second quarter, the three-ball got them out serious trouble. Regan netted one to help narrow a 17-11 gap, and later Vesey tossed a trey after Villa got out 21-14.

After Vesey’s triple, a drive by Maddy Ryan raised the ‘Canes’ lead back up to six points. After that basket with 3:42 remaining in the first half, Villa Maria would only hit one field goal (a “three” at the start of the third quarter) over the next 13-and-a-half minutes of game time.

However, this served mainly to get the Magic more or less back on even footing, since they didn’t exactly score up a storm themselves during this stretch, and Villa was able to pick up eight points at the free throw line.

Late in the first half, the Hurricanes were ahead 26-17, but in the final minute the Mount’s Audrey Bryce, a sophomore reserve forward, scored on an inbounds play and then hit a pair of foul shots to make it 26-21 at the interlude.

That score stayed on the board almost two minutes into the third round, then a trey by Warley stretched Villa’s lead to eight points, 29-21. This would be erased by nine straight points and some good defensive stops by the Magic, who had freshman forward Grace Niekelski battling the Villa post players on the inside.

Vesey put in a lay-up off a pass from 10th-grade classmate Kelly Rothenberg, who then bagged a short jumper. Fouled on a successful drive, Vesey tacked on the extra point, and when Bryce drove in to score with 1:25 to go in the third quarter, Mount St. Joseph led 30-29. During the rest of the period the Hurricanes added three points on free throws to the Magic’s one, so Villa entered the final round with a 32-31 edge.

The Magic’s tenacious defense had come at a price, as their team fouls were mounting.

“In the third quarter, I told the girls we couldn’t afford to get them into the bonus too early,” Coach Roynan said. “We did foul too much, but I’m kind of okay with that when it’s a product of being aggressive rather than being passive and just letting them score.”

In just half-a-minute at the start of the fourth quarter, the Mounties committed their ninth and 10th team fouls, and Villa shot two-for-four from the line. Cunningham recouped those points on a jumper from the left wing, but soon after that the Hurricanes started scoring again from the floor.

“We executed better in the fourth quarter,” observed the ‘Canes’ McCartney. “We got the ball to the people and the spots we needed to get it to, instead of coming down court in a haphazard way and taking bad shots.”

Villa also dialed up the intensity of its defense, and the Magic missed some shots they’d been making earlier on.

“If some of the lay-ups we missed in the fourth quarter had gone in, we could’ve put pressure on them pretty much the whole way,” Roynan said.

With four different players getting to the hoop for lay-ups, Villa Maria was ahead 43-38 with just under two minutes to go. The score was the same at the one-minute mark, following turnovers by both teams.

Now, Villa’s double-bonus status really began to pay dividends. As the clock dropped from 56 to 19 seconds, the Mount only added a Vesey basket off of a rebound while the Hurricanes made all but one of eight free throws and levered the score out to 50-40. Lauder scored a lay-up right at the end to make the final margin an even dozen.

Vesey led Mount St. Joe with 15 points and Bryce and Dodaro recorded six apiece. After Regan’s five points came two-point contributions from Cunningham, Niekelski, Rothenberg and junior Maggie Zipfel. The Hurricanes were powered by double-digit performances by Lauder (19) and Walheim (13).

Following last Sunday’s game, the Mount would have time for its injured players to recover. The District I Class 5A tournament doesn’t begin until February 20, when the fifth-seeded Magic will face Marple Newtown High School.

Mount St. Joe had played in Marple’s holiday tournament, and although they didn’t face the Tigers directly, the won the tourney finals by a 43-28 score over an Owen J. Roberts team that had beaten Marple in the first round, 56-26. Villa Maria is seeded third in the same District 1 bracket.