by Tom Utescher

While St. Basil and Villa Maria are still planted solidly atop the Catholic Academies basketball standings, Mount St. Joseph Academy had a chance to make a strong bid for third place on back-to-back days in the middle of last week.

The Magic did just that, avenging a disturbing 49-22 loss at Nazareth Academy by beating the visiting Pandas 60-41 last Wednesday, and then completing a season sweep of Gwynedd Mercy Academy the following evening with on the Monarchs’ home court. The Magic were ahead by four points in the final seconds on Thursday, then a long Gwynedd buzzer-beater made it a one-point contest at the end, 48-47.

Within the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies, Mount St. Joe improved to 7-4 while Gwynedd Mercy slipped to 7-5. Thursday’s game also completed the little round-robin between the three teams in the middle of the AACA rankings, with the Mount emerging at 3-1, while Gwynedd was 2-2 and Nazareth was 1-3.

In most aspects, last Wednesday’s rematch with Nazareth featured a scenario opposite of that seen at the Pandas’ home court early last month. Nazareth had jumped on top of the Mount right away that time, but last week the Mount went up 15-8 in the first quarter and led 33-15 at halftime, when junior Taylor Sistrunk already had 15 of her game-high 19 points in the book.

After the intermission, sophomore Grace Niekelski deposited 13 of her total of 15 points, and overall the Magic also received 11 points from junior Lauren Vesey, nine from senior Lauren Cunningham and six from junior Kelly Rothenberg.

Back on Jan. 11, the Mounties won on their home court against Gwynedd, 47-44, a score very similar to last Thursday’s 48-47. For the rematch, an overflow crowd stuffed the Monarchs’ gym, with many student fans sporting colorful costumes as they prepared to go along on another wild and wooly ride with the two longtime rivals.

In the pre-game introductions, Gwynedd Mercy Academy considerately included a moment of silence in memory of the Mount’s school president, Sister Kathleen Brabson, who had passed away eight days earlier.

The game began with the first of three three-point field goals that Gwynedd junior Sarah White would score in the initial nine minutes. The Monarchs also scored several times in transition, forcing turnovers from their guests. The hosts led 12-6 at the quarter and 17-9 less than a minute into the second period.

Mount head coach Jim Roynan picked up on a change in Gwynedd’s approach since the first time the teams played.

“They changed up their defenses a lot today,” he observed. “Last time they were almost exclusively playing zone defense, and we were ready for that, but they played more “man” today. They’re an aggressive defensive team; they’re well coached and they know their rotations.”

Speaking to Gwynedd’s early accuracy from the three-point loop, he said, “We had to weather that storm and hope they cooled down, which they did. We also had six turnovers in the first quarter, which was uncharacteristic. Recently we had been taking good care of the ball, and we were able to get back to that once we settled down.”

The Mount offense began to revive with successful drives by Vesey and Sistrunk. Cunningham would also hit three three-pointers in the period from different sides of the floor.

With less than two minutes to go in the half, her third trey got the Mount back to within one point of the leaders at 20-21. However, Gwynedd point guard Kaylie Griffin, a sophomore, penetrated to the hoop twice to set her team up with a 25-20 halftime lead.

Niekelski, who usually spearheads the MSJ offense, had not scored at all.

“I think we needed to start moving on offense more,” she commented. “We were kind of just standing around. That’s mostly why I wasn’t getting the ball, I wasn’t moving enough. We turned that around in the second half.”

The Mount had a bit of a height advantage over their hosts, but they didn’t rebound the ball as well as Monarchs in the first two quarters.

“We did better in the second half,” Coach Roynan remarked. “We’re capable of rebounding like that all the time, but sometimes the girls just need to be reminded of it.”

In the third quarter, in which the Mount outscored Gwynedd 12-9, there was only one field goal from the outside by the Magic.

“We knew we needed to be pounding the ball into the middle, because we knew we had a height advantage,” Niekelski related. “We couldn’t rely on jump shots to win the game.”

In front of a large crowd of visiting Mounties, junior Taylor Sistrunk (with ball) goes through a Gwynedd double team on the way to the basket. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

As in the late stages of the second quarter, near the end of the third the Magic trimmed their deficit to a single point through a “three” by Cunningham. That came with 47 seconds left in round three. First Gwynedd and then the Mount turned the ball over after that, and with nine-tenths of a second left on the clock GMA senior Carly Bachinsky made the second of two free throws. The Monarchs were ahead 34-32 for the start of the final quarter.

Gwynedd’s Alyssa Martin, a senior who plans to play for Ursinus College, popped in a jumper in the first minute, then Cunningham put in two free throws for the Mounties and Vesey stole the ball back and scored to tie the contest at 36-all. After White canned a trey to move the Monarchs back in front, Gwynedd called a timeout with 5:40 left to play.

Midway through the period, Niekelski drove the lane to score and GMA called another timeout. With 3:59 on the clock the hosts were still ahead, 39-38, but it would be their last lead of the evening.

The visitors pulled ahead 41-39, when Niekelski canned a “three” from the right wing. Then, on the open floor, the Monarchs committed their sixth team foul, and with 3:10 to go, the Magic would now enjoy the bonus the rest of the way.

After Sistrunk traded lay-ups with GMA’s Bachinsky, a time out was called by Mount St. Joseph, which led 43-41 with just over two minutes left. The MSJ lead climbed to four points when Rothenberg made two free throws with 1:42 on the clock.

Soon after that, the Mount’s determination was demonstrated when a long three-point attempt by Gwynedd’s Griffin had the ball hitting the rim hard and bouncing way out above the top of the key. Two Monarchs were closest to the ball as it descended, but Niekelski raced right through them to grab it.

“It was coming down to the end, and we had to get the ball,” she said.

With 57 ticks to go, the Magic missed the front end of a one-and-one at the line, but Rothenberg grabbed the rebound and went back up for a lay-up, making it 47-41.

The Mount junior then made a couple of nice plays on the defensive end. She blocked a GMA lay-up attempt, then the ball ended up going out over the baseline off another MSJ player. The Monarchs inbounded the ball and missed a shot, and Rothenberg was there for the rebound.

She got the ball ahead to Vesey, who was fouled but missed the first shot of a one-and-one with 16 seconds left. With 10 seconds remaining, Gwynedd’s White nailed a three-pointer from the right corner and the Monarchs used their last timeout, now back within three points at 47-44.

When they came out and fouled Niekelski, she missed a free throw with 5.7 seconds to go. Now the Mount called timeout, knowing that Niekelski had another shot coming since the Mount had gotten into the double bonus.

The sophomore put away her second shot to make it 48-44, and then Gwynedd got the ball just over mid-court on the left side before White had to fire it up.

Her extra-long three-pointer banked into the basket, but time expired with the Magic still up by one point.

“Once Grace made that last free throw the game was over,” Roynan said. “They were out of timeouts, and all we needed to do was not foul.”

The Mount’s Cunningham and Niekelski reached double figures with 14 and 12 points, respectively, and the winners also received nine points from Rothenberg, six from Vesey, five from Sistrunk and two from junior Audrey Bryce.

The list of Gwynedd scorers was headed by White (15 points) and Griffin (11), followed by Bachinsky (eight), junior Reganne Flannery (five), Martin (four) and freshman twins Bianca and Sofia Coleman (two each).