by Tom Utescher
Entering the PIAA Class 5A state tournament as the third seed out of District 1, Mount St. Joseph Academy ended its basketball season last Saturday evening in a 51-45 first-round loss at the nearby neutral site of Upper Dublin High School.
The Magic fell to another three seed, District 3’s Twin Valley High School, which is located just east of Morgantown, Pa. A semifinalist in its own Athletic Association of Catholic Academies, the Mount wrapped up the season with an overall record of 17-11. Twin Valley, improving to 26-3, advanced into a second-round contest with a time-tested tournament team, Warminster’s Archbishop Wood.
Last Saturday, Twin Valley gained some separation late in the second quarter, and led 33-26 at the half. The Magic fell farther behind in the third frame, which ended with the Raiders ahead by 18 points, 46-28. A fourth-quarter rally got Mount St. Joe back within six (48-42) with a little under two minutes to go.
Just after that, Twin Valley got into the foul bonus, and at the final horn the Raiders’ margin was still six points after they collected three points from the foul line and the Magic received a three-point field goal from sophomore guard Lauren Vesey.
With four treys altogether, Vesey led the Mounties with 18 points, while freshman forward Grace Niekelski added nine points. Young players also powered Twin Valley, which had sophomores Peyton McDaniel and Taylor Blunt put up 21 and 17 points, respectively.
“You always want that one more win,” said first-year Mount head coach Jim Roynan, “but when we look back on the season a week or two from now, I think we’ll see it as a success.”
The program had graduated five senior starters from the year before. Returning current senior Liana Alcaro was knocked out by injury before the season even started, and her classmate, Grace DiGiovanni, was lost to an ACL tear in January.
“It took us a few games to adjust to not having Grace, because she’s one of the captains and she brings that leadership element,” Roynan recounted. “There are younger girls who we relied upon to give us major minutes for the first time, and they really stepped up. We’ll graduate two senior starters [Megan Dodaro and Deirdre Regan, but we’ll have back a lot of those younger players who showed a lot of growth this season.”
After the regular season ended, the Magic improved their standing in District 1 during the district tournament, going in as the fifth seed and emerging as the third seed to be slotted into the state tournament bracket. After they lost in the semifinals to the eventual champion, the Mounties won the playoff to determine third and fourth place early last week.
In that seeding game Mount St. Joe won, 52-47, over Bayard Rustin High School, which had begun the tournament as the district’s second seed. The Mount had been buried early in its District 1 semifinal loss to Henderson High, and it looked like the same thing was happening in the third/fourth playoff when the Magic fell behind Rustin by 20 points in the second period.
They dug part of the way out of that hole in the third round, then completed their successful comeback in a 17-2 fourth quarter, dialing up the defense and limiting Rustin to a pair of free throws. Dodaro and sophomore forward Kelly Rothenberg each scored a dozen points, with Niekelski adding eight points and Vesey scoring seven.
Niekelski put away three free throws and a jumper from near the foul line to give the Magic a 5-2 edge midway through the first quarter of last Saturday’s state tourney opener. Notching a “three” for her first points of the night, Twin Valley’s McDaniel tied it up at 5-5 and the teams seesawed through the rest of the first frame.
Vesey got going with a three-pointer and then stole the ball back for a breakaway lay-up. At the end, MSJ sophomore Taylor Sistrunk hit a foul shot that ended the quarter in a 13-13 draw. The score progressed to 20-20 in the second stanza as Vesey bagged another trey, Regan scored on a drive and Dodaro deposited two free throws.
With 3:50 remaining in the first half, Rothenberg made one of two free throws resulting from the Raiders’ fifth team foul. The 21-20 edge would prove to be the Magic’s last lead of the game.
Just under a minute later, the Raiders’ McDaniel grabbed a long rebound and drove in to score, then she stole the ball and hit another lay-up. Twin Valley scored three more points during this stretch before Vesey and Regan fought back for the Mount.
The Magic were only down by three with half-a-minute to go, then Julia Danilek and McDaniel scored two quick field goals for Twin Valley to set the score at 33-26 for halftime.
“We haven’t eliminated those stretches where we have a letdown and let the other team get ahead of us, but overall those lapses have become shorter,” Coach Roynan commented.
As the third quarter got underway, Vesey picked up a third personal foul but the score remained unchanged for more than two-and-a-half minutes. A lay-up by Ava Morrow provided the first two of the 13 points that Twin Valley would score during the rest of the period, while the Magic added only a pair of field goals furnished by junior Lauren Cunningham.
Twin Valley seemed to be in a very comfortable position at the start of the fourth quarter, but the large cheering section that had accompanied the Raiders to Fort Washington had some anxious moments during the last eight minutes.
“The girls were confident they could come back and make a game of it, and they did,” MSJ’s Roynan remarked. “We didn’t quite get all the way back, but I’m proud of our players for never giving up.”
Early in the period, two drives by Vesey and one by Niekelski made it 48-34, then in the middle of the period MSJ’s Sistrunk scored in transition. Next, Sistrunk was fouled by the opposing tenth-grade Taylor, Twin Valley’s Taylor Blunt. It was Blunt’s fourth personal, and Sistrunk stepped to the line and made both free throws.
When Cunningham scored off of an offensive rebound, the Magic called time-out with 2:52 left to play. They were back within eight points at 48-40, and they’d only allowed Twin Valley to score two free throws in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter.
Over the following minute, the sixth and seventh team fouls called on the Mount gave the Raiders a chance to pick-up four points at the free throw line. They came away empty, though, and in between an assist by Vesey helped Niekelski score on a drive that made it 48-42 with 1:54 on the clock.
With 1:24 to go, the Magic’s eighth team foul netted Twin Valley two points from the line, courtesy of McDaniel. At the other end, Mount St. Joe launched two off-target shots. After the Raiders rebounded the second Mount miss, they had Ashlynn Lennon score their final point on a one-and-one with 1:01 remaining.
This put Twin Valley up by nine (51-42), and the Mount’s Roynan sent seniors Nora Denton, Maddy Getty and Alexa Slivestri out onto the floor.
“We have some seniors who didn’t play a lot, but who have been very dedicated and brought a lot of energy to the team,” Roynan noted. “They deserved to get on the court one last time.”
The Mounties committed their ninth and 10th team fouls, but the Raiders missed each of their last three free throws. With 44 seconds left, Vesey made her final shot from the three-point line, so the margin at the end was six points.
Sistrunk came away with five points and Regan and Cunningham each scored four. Three points came from Rothenberg, and Dodaro scored two in the Mount’s swansong.