Junior guard Lauren Vesey of Mount St. Joe’s (center) deals with a double-team consisting of Solanco’s Kara McClure (left) and Mackenzie Gladfelter. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Mount St. Joseph Academy and Solanco (Southern Lancaster County) High School followed different paths through their respective Class 5A district basketball tournaments.

The Mount Magic were seeded 12th in District 1, but upset three more highly-ranked teams to reach the finals and ultimately emerge as the district’s second seed going into the PIAA state tournament.

The Golden Mules had been seeded first for the District 3 tournament out in South Central Pennsylvania, but lost in overtime in the semifinals to the eventual champ, Palmyra. Solanco also succumbed in the third-place playoff to become the fourth seed out of District 3 for the PIAA’s.

The teams proved to be fairly well matched through most of last Saturday’s state tourney opener. The Mount held a three-point advantage after three periods, then took command with a 10-2 surge in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter.

Receiving a game-high 16 points from junior Lauren Vesey and 14 from sophomore Grace Niekelski, Mount St. Joe led by 13 points shortly before the final score was locked in at 49-39. Juniors Kelly Rothenberg and Taylor Sistrunk added eight and seven points, respectively, and junior Grace Morrow and sophomore Paige Metzler added two points apiece.

Reflecting the Mount’s rollercoaster season, last weekend’s state tourney win simply got the team back to the .500 mark overall, at 14-14. Solanco, which received a dozen points from Aleksa Burger and nine from Grace Kreider, ended its season at 21-8.

For last Saturday’s PIAA opener, the Mount St. Joseph team and its supporters could hardly have asked for a more convenient neutral site. Their game at Upper Dublin High School was the second contest of a double header that included a boys’ Class 3A game.

Travelling farther, Solanco was nonetheless represented by a large cadre of fans, and the two student cheering sections carried on a lively repartee from diagonally opposite corners of the gym.

The scoreboard clicked over slowly at first. After each team missed a field goal attempt, the score was tied 1-1 after two-and-a-half minutes with solitary free throws by Sistrunk and Solanco’s Jess Cabrera. MSJ’s Vesey, who aggressively penetrated to the hoop during the first half, posted the first field goal of the evening with 5:21 remaining in the first quarter.

After the Golden Mules evened it up at 3-3, a free throw and a midrange jumper from the left side by Niekelski were followed by a jumper and a layup by Rothenberg. This had the Magic ahead 10-3 seven minutes into the game, but Solanco got right back in it by scoring the final field goal of the first quarter and the first bucket of the second period.

Going for a rebound, Mount senior Lauren Cunningham (right) outreaches Solanco’s Mackenzie Gladfelter as MSJ’s Taylor Sistrunk (left) looks on. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Somewhat shorter than the Mount at almost every position, the District 3 squad compensated with quickness and aggressiveness. They frequently created second chances on offense by slipping inside to rebound missed shots by their teammates. Both teams ran the floor well at different points in the game.

In a 14-14 second quarter, Vesey rang up three layups and four free throws for the Magic. Solanco drew even with the Mount at 13-13, and later the score was 17-17 when Mount St. Joseph’s defensive pressure forced the Golden Mules to call a timeout with 2:13 to go in the first half.

Solanco edged ahead 19-17 when Burger converted off of an offensive rebound, but the Magic’s Niekelski quickly responded with a jumper from the right wing. Vesey scored a layup in transition and drew a foul at the start of the final minute. She made that free throw, then put in two others with 20 seconds left for a 24-19 lead at the half.

Solanco committed eight team fouls during the first 16 minutes, and had three different players tagged with two personals. For the Mount, Rothenberg owned three of the five team fouls, nabbed for some touch fouls by eagle-eyed officials.

As the third round got underway, Niekelski swatted down a layup attempt by Solanco and then hit a baseline shot on the offensive end. In the second minute, the Golden Mules added two free throws and picked up a layup off of a steal, closing up the score to 26-23.

The rest of the period was a 6-6 standoff, and as the fourth quarter began a short jumper by Rothenberg was matched by Burger’s bucket off of a rebound for Solanco, keeping it a three-point game with the score now 34-31.

With a little over a minute-and-a-half gone in the final round, the Magic began to break the game open with their transition offense. Sistrunk sandwiched two layups around a pair by Vesey, powering an 8-0 surge that created a double-digit lead for the first time in the contest.

The Golden Mules trailed 42-31 when they called time out with 3:59 left to play. They already had six team fouls, and soon they started to foul the Magic to keep time from steadily ticking away. This seemed like a sound approach at first, since the Mounties came up empty on three different one-and-one opportunities as the clock dropped down to below the two-minute mark.

However, a three-pointer by Kreider was all Solanco scored during this stretch, and when the Mount’s Metzler and Morrow each hit both their shots on double-bonus trips to the foul line later on, the score spread out again, 46-34.

Burger scored her last points of the night off of an offensive rebound, but Sistrunk recouped those points with made free throws with 48 seconds left. Solanco’s Kreider had fouled out of the game earlier, and now Kara McClure joined her with 34 seconds left. The beneficiary, Niekelski, made one of two tosses for the largest lead of the evening, 49-36.

In the closing 24 seconds a free throw by Cabrera and a layup by Jade Eschelman completed the scoring for the night.

The Mount advanced to a second round game this Wednesday evening, facing District 7 runner-up Thomas Jefferson High School, which is located about a dozen miles south of Pittsburgh. In an effort to have the two teams meet in the middle, the PIAA picked Chambersburg Area High School as the venue for the second-round game.

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