by Tom Utescher

Mount St. Joseph point guard Lauren Vesey (left) fends off Gwynedd Mercy’s Reganne Flannery, a fellow senior. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

After Mount St. Joseph Academy split its regular season series against Gwynedd Mercy in a pair of close games, the Mount Magic met the Monarchs a third time last Saturday, this time with a spot in the Catholic Academies finals on the line.

The Mount owned a modest 10-8 lead at the end of the first quarter, and was up 20-12 at halftime in the semifinal contest. The Magic continued to build their lead to as many as 14 points late in the third period, but Gwynedd rallied back to trail only 37-34 with under three minutes remaining.

There the Monarchs’ comeback stalled, and the last three points were scored by Mount senior point guard Lauren Vesey as the Magic prevailed, 40-34. Junior Grace Niekelski recorded a game-high 20 points and senior Kelly Rothenberg put in 11, followed by Vesey with five points and seniors Audrey Bryce and Taylor Sistrunk with two points apiece. Senior Sarah White led Gwynedd with 19 points, and next on the list for the Monarchs was junior Kaylee Griffin, with six.

Climbing to an overall record of 17-6, Mount St. Joe advanced to play in this Wednesday’s league championship game (7:00 PM at La Salle High School) against St. Basil Academy, a 45-36 winner over Villa Maria in last Saturday’s second semifinal.

While defending champion St. Basil had made a 14-0 run through the league schedule, the Mount, Gwynedd, and Villa Maria had split in their season series with one another, each winding up at 10-4. Instead of resorting to complex tiebreaking formulas to rank the teams for the tournament, the ACAA performed a few coin flips until the Mount wound up seeded second, Gwynedd third, and Villa fourth.
Last month, Gwynedd won at home against the Magic, 59-55, but then lost the return engagement at Mount St. Joe’s, 46-41.

Gwynedd had a tough time stopping MSJ junior Grace Niekelski (left) during much of last weekend’s AACA semifinal, but here she has a shot blocked by Monarchs senior Molly Hanson. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

In the first quarter of their Saturday semifinal, Niekelski and Rothenberg each scored twice from the paint. Griffin started Gwynedd off with a lay-up and then she and senior Sarah White each canned a three-point shot. In the waning seconds of the period, Niekelski went coast-to-coast to score, nudging the Mount ahead, 10-8.

At the start of the second round, a drive by GMA sophomore Bianca Coleman tied the game at 10-all, but after Niekelski scored in transition and then stepped back for a trey from the right wing, the Monarchs called time-out. They were down by five points with 5:26 remaining in the first half.

A field goal on the inside by Coleman was answered by Bryce for the Mount, and a second three-pointer by Niekelski gave the Magic an eight-point cushion for halftime, 20-12.

Rothenberg, who will run track at Brown University, deposited seven of her 11 total points in the first five minutes of the second half. She put in a pair of lay-ups and then netted a “three,” and Niekelski chimed in with another trey while Sistrunk stuck a 15-footer. Rothenberg’s three-pointer came last in this sequence, spreading the score to 32-20 and causing Gwynedd to call time-out with 2:57 to go in the period.

Shortly after play resumed the Monarchs’ White fired in her third three-pointer of the third quarter, then Niekelski was fouled on a successful drive and made the free throw, as well. When Vesey scored her first points of the afternoon on a runner with just under 90 seconds remaining, the Magic’s lead was up to 14 points, 37-23.

The Mount’s size advantage over the Monarchs was evident, and on a number of plays the Magic displayed impressive athleticism.

“We know where we can score the ball, and we know the advantages we have,” said first year Mount head coach Matt Feeney. “We did a really good job in the first three quarters of finding the kids to take advantage of that.”

It almost led one to wonder how Gwynedd had beaten Mount St. Joe’s the first time the teams played this season, but now the Monarchs showed how.

First, they shaved three points off their deficit by the three-quarter mark as Griffin bagged one of two free throws and then assisted on a lay-up by Sophia Coleman (Bianca’s twin) to make it 37-26 going into the final round.

Griffin would not be seen out on the floor after that, although she wasn’t in foul trouble and didn’t appear to be injured. Her sister Hannah, a freshman, entered the game and the Monarchs continued to chip away at the Mount lead.

GMA’s little three-point spurt at the end of the third frame proved to be the beginning of an 11-0 run. It evolved slowly, with the score sticking at 37-26 for the first two-and-a half minutes of the fourth period.

Off of a missed GMA shot, Sophia Coleman grabbed a loose-ball rebound and went in for a lay-up. She also made a free throw tacked onto the play.

After the Mount missed a pair of foul shots, GMA’s White attacked the hoop and drew two shooting fouls from the Mounties. She made one shot on each trip to the stripe. The second “make” closed up the score to 37-31 with just over four minutes left, and Gwynedd was now in the bonus.

During a time-out called soon after this, the Magic still couldn’t figure out how to get their offense going again – they hadn’t scored in five-and-a-half minutes.

“I don’t have a great answer for that right now,” Coach Feeney said after the game. “We’ll see what the film tells us. I think we lost some of our composure early in the fourth quarter and forced things a little bit. We stopped being as patient as we need to be to execute our offense well.”

It was Gwynedd’s White who scored next, this time on a three-point shot from the left wing. The Monarchs called time-out right away, now only down 37-34 with 2:46 on the clock.

Mount St. Joe then lost a chance to gain little breathing room by missing two free throws, but at the other Gwynedd missed from the floor and Niekelsli nabbed the rebound with just over 90 seconds to go.

Handling the ball near the top of the Mount’s offensive set, Vesey spied a gap and penetrated down the right side of the lane for a lay-up.

Another rebound of a Monarch miss was grabbed by Bryce, and the Mount maintained possession as Gwynedd committed its sixth team foul. Once the Magic got the ball up the court, another GMA foul sent Vesey to the line with 46 seconds showing. The ball rattled in on her first toss and her second shot missed, but the lead had clicked up to six points.

The next errant shot from the field by the Monarchs was rebounded by one of their own, Sophia Coleman, but when she was fouled she missed the front end of a one-and-one with 24 seconds to go. The final shot for Gwynedd was a “three” that was off the mark, with the ball rebounded by the Mount’s Niekelski.

Assessing his ball club at the start of postseason play, Feeney remarked, “We’re defending a lot better than we have all year. It’s really stepped up a level, and that’s what has helped us have a pretty good run these last eight or nine games.”

He said that it wasn’t a question of one or two players upping their game, it was rather a tide of improvement that raised the level of the entire line-up.

“Everyone is playing better,” he noted. “They brought their game up together.”