PHILADELPHIA >> The Villa Maria girls’ basketball team knew it was going to be a good day as soon as it got to Temple.
As the Hurricanes were getting off their bus, the NBA champion Golden State Warriors were getting on theirs, having just finished shootaround prior to Saturday’s game with the Sixers. Having met champions on their way in, the Hurricanes made sure they could call themselves champions on their way out.
Powered by Paige Lauder and Abby Walheim, Villa Maria made sure Mount Saint Joseph wouldn’t pull off another upset, defeating the Magic 61-37 to claim the District I 5A girls’ basketball title at the Liacouras Center.
“We met the Warriors, so I knew then it was going to be a good day,” Lauder said. “That brought us a lot of energy. We shook hands with a couple of them. We already had a feeling it was going to be our day, but we just had to be positive.”
Villa’s run capped a stellar postseason for the AACA, with the league adding the 5A title to its haul of the 2A (Sacred Heart), 3A (Saint Basil) and 4A (Gwynedd Mercy) so far. The AACA was assured a 5A title regardless, with Mount also a part of the league.
The last team the No. 12 seeded Magic wanted to see in the district tournament was Villa Maria. Not only had the Hurricanes swept their two regular season meetings, but Villa had added a third win over Mount in the AACA semifinals.
Each game had gotten closer in terms of final score, but as Mount coach Jim Roynan noted, the Hurricanes are just a tough matchup.
“They’re talented, they’re long and they match up well with us,” Roynan said. “They got off to a great start and we were on our heels a little bit. We just never recovered from the first quarter.
“Half of their points, maybe more, were off of transition in the first half, or drives to the basket were we weren’t moving our feet. I don’t want to say the occasion got to the girls but we were definitely a step slow.”
In the teams’ last meeting, the Magic threw a wrinkle into things by playing a zone defense that gave Villa some trouble. Lauder noted the Hurricanes aren’t the strongest halfcourt team and because they knew Mount would come out in zone again, they were determined to do something about it.
Villa coach Kathy McCartney said her players weren’t overlooking Mount despite the three wins and if anything, the last game only furthered her team’s concentration.
“They had a lot of momentum and played really well on Wednesday so we were very nervous about them,” McCartney said. “The best thing that happened to us was the last game was real close and it fired my kids up a little bit.”
The Hurricanes put some new sets in to counter the Mount zone, but the best way to beat a zone is always going to be getting down the floor before it can set up. McCartney credited Maddy Ryan’s aggressive drives to the basket early as key in setting the tone for her teammates.
While Villa’s offense was really good out of the gate, with the No. 2 seed opening on a 13-1 run, it wasn’t the difference.
“We knew defense was going to win this game, it helped us win the last three times we played them,” Walheim said. “It’s important that we control the tempo right from the start, start off strong and control the game. It gives us confidence and we do our best when we’re all loose and feeling good about it so it was important to start off strong.
Walheim and Lauder thrived off the defense in the first half, of course it helped the two rangy and athletic forwards were causing a majority of the transition themselves. Walheim, the top scorer in program history, hit her first four shots and 8-of-11 in the first half for 16 points while Lauder added 10 on 5-of-8 shooting.
“We’re a team that likes to run, so being on a big court lets us spread out and it suits us,” Lauder said. “Our goal was to come out and run and be confident, but not cocky.”
Lauder’s last basket of the first half gave the junior forward 1,000 points in her career. She finished with 14, adding a team-best eight rebounds plus three assists, two steals and two blocks.
With her team up big at the half, Walheim didn’t have to be as prolific in the second half but it didn’t stop the senior from posting a game-high 25 points on 11-of-14 shooting with five rebounds, four steals and two blocks.
“Thank God for Abby Walheim,” McCartney said. “The kid is the most competitive soul I know and she was not losing this game. She did what she needed to do.”
The win was especially sweet for Walheim and point guard Julia Samer, the only two seniors on the roster. Villa made it to Temple last year, but lost in the district title game and earlier this postseason, fell to St. Basil for the third straight time in the AACA championship game.
Samer didn’t score, but she did everything else for the Hurricanes. The senior had five assists, a steal and four rebounds, a perfect example of the all-in approach every player on the team has embraced this season.
“It means everything, I can’t describe the feeling,” Samer said. “Our whole game is rebound and push the ball, so I just wanted to get out and spread the floor. I felt that was the big key for us.”
Both teams will now prepare for the state playoffs. While Saturday’s outcome was a tough one, Roynan felt like his team turned a corner the last few weeks and can build on what got it to Temple in the first place. With most of the Magic roster coming back, Roynan said his hope is the team can win a game or two in states and go into the offseason with a lot of experience.
“They started to play together and trust each other more,” Roynan said. “The trust deepened a little bit and they became more of a team over that period of time and the girls found out some things about themselves, the way they can play and they showed it to their teammates.”
Their day started by meeting champions including Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, and it ended with them as champions. It was almost perfect for the Villa Maria Hurricanes, there was just one thing left out.
“We didn’t get to see Steph (Curry),” Lauder said with a laugh.
VILLA MARIA 21 17 11 12 – 61
MOUNT SAINT JOSEPH 3 10 8 16 – 37
VM: Abby Walheim 11 2-3 25, Maddy Ryan 1 6-6 8, Myla Warley 1 0-0 3, Paige Lauder 6 2-2 14, Jackie Ford 2 0-0 4, Carina Cheiffalo 2 0-0 5, Faith Iacone 1 0-0 2. Totals: 24 10-11 61
MSJ: Lauren Vesey 1 1-2 3, Kelly Rothenberg 5 1-2 12, Taylor Sistrunk 1 3-4 5, Lauren Cunningham 1 1-2 4, Grace Niekelski 1 5-7 7, Audrey Bryce 1 0-0 2, Kaitlyn Morrow 1 0-0 2, Maggie Zipfa 1 0-0 2. Totals: 12 11-17 37
3-pointers: VM – Warley, Walheim, Chieffalo; MSJ – Rothenberg, Cunningham.