SPRINGFIELD >> Gwynedd Mercy Academy played a near-perfect first half Saturday afternoon as it went up against unbeaten St. Basil Academy in the semifinals of the AACA playoffs.
But a half does not a game make.
And in the second half the Panthers turned to their primary weapon, Natalie Kucowski, and the player dubbed, “the best player in the league,” did not disappoint.
Kucowski scored 17 second-half points, 20 for the game, and St. Basil escaped with a 28-25 win to put themselves in the AACA finals against the winner of Saturday night’s game between Villa Maria and Mount Saint Joseph.
“That’s why she’s the best player in the league,” said Panthers head coach Terry Mancini. “In the first half, we couldn’t get anything going.
“But in the second half our defense improved immeasurably and that got us back in the game.”
That first half was a nightmare for the Panthers, who tallied all of five points, with their first field goal not coming until the 4:45 mark of the second quarter.
The Monarchs cranked it up defensively, kept St. Basil off the boards and played a deliberate offense, which saw them often in a four-corner alignment.
St. Basil, which saw its season end a year ago with a nine-point game in the AACA playoffs, had a sense of déjà vu, that quickly turned into a sense of desperation.
“We didn’t want to go out and score nine points again,” Kucowski said. “We just needed to get stops on defense.”
The Panthers got their stops, and Kucowski simply took over the game offensively.
“She had a tremendous second half,” said Gwynedd Mercy head coach Tom Lonergan. “She just stepped up and hit those 3s, and when she’s out that far, what can you do defensively?”
Meanwhile, Basil put the clamps on the Monarchs offense, ultimately not permitting a field goal in the third quarter, and only two for the entire second half.
“We just ran our same stuff,” Mancini said, “but Natalie just took over the ballgame.
“She stepped back and hit those threes, but at the same time she also found her open teammates.”
Chasing nine points at halftime, the Panthers wound up trailing by one point after three quarters, and then put the game away in the fourth quarter as Cheryl and Casey Renolde hit big baskets and Kucowski tacked on a pair of NBA threes.
“In the first half, (St. Basil) were content to settle for the outside shot,” Lonergan said, “and that played right into our hands.
“In the second half we just didn’t do a good enough job rebounding, and they got a lot of extra shots. That’s something that killed us.”
Chasing three in the closing seconds, Gwynedd caught a break when Kucowski was called for traveling in the game’s final 17 seconds.
But the Monarchs were not able to get a clean look at a 3-ball, and the Panthers were in the finals.
“It was great the way we battled back,” Mancini said. “And Natalie just took over the game.
“And that’s why she’s considered the best player in the league.”
St. Basil 28, Gwynedd Mercy 25
Gwynedd Mercy 7 7 3 8 – 25
St. Basil 1 4 11 12 – 28
Gwynedd Mercy: Carly Heineman 2 4-4 8; Maura Conroy 3 3-5 10; Danielle Semour 2 0-0 4; Megan Doughery 1 0-0 3; Bridget Casey 0 0-0 0; Georgia Cattie 0 0-0 0; Sara White 0 0-0 0. Totals 8 7-9 25..
St. Basil: Julianna Gura 1 0-0 2; Cheryl Renolde 1 0-0 2; Casey Renolde 1 0-0 2; Maddie Riehman 1 0-1 2; Natalie Kucowski 8 1-3 20; Kelly Grant 0 0-0 0.. Totals 12 1-4 28.
3-pointers: Dougherty; Conroy; Kucowski 3.
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