Mount St. Joseph battles, but falls to Villa Maria in AACA semis

SPRINGFIELD >> There was one common theme in the postgame talks between Mount St. Joseph and Villa Maria Academy on Sunday night.

Both Magic coach Jim Roynan and Hurricanes coach Kathy McCartney felt their respective teams played exceptionally hard but also with plenty of miscues. Granted, AACA teams tend to do that to each other and the league usually produces tight games that come down to the final minute, so it seemed natural that the team that could make the most plays late would win on Sunday.

The Hurricanes made enough free throws and got enough clutch rebounds as they edged the Mount 52-40 in the AACA semifinals at La Salle College High School, advancing to Tuesday night’s title game.

“We found a way to win when it was tough, I’m thrilled we won this game because Mount played great,” McCarthy said. “They played like the underdogs they were and they brought it. We took every punch they had.”

The story of the first half was rebounding, with the Hurricanes (17-6) decidedly owning the rebounding margin, especially on the offensive end. Mount (14-9) gave up seven offensive boards in the second quarter alone and Villa’s athletic front line was able to convert several into second-chance baskets.

The Hurricanes led just 13-11 after a hard-fought first quarter but stretched the lead out thanks to their rebounding prowess and were up 26-17 before Mount made a surge back into the game.

“They did everything they needed to do and if were able to make a couple more shots down the stretch, we keep it closer and keep a little more pressure on them,”  Roynan said. “We were keeping track of the offensive rebounds and told the kids they had too many in the first half. They got a few more in the second half, but not as many. We just decided we were going to rebound.”

Roynan turned to Audrey Bryce off the bench late in the second half the reserve did plenty to boost the Magic. She competed on the glass and scored four straight points to end the half as Mount got within 26-21 at the break.

“She’s been swinging between varsity and JV and hadn’t found a lot of time for her up until now, she’s had a great couple of weeks of practice for us,” Roynan said. “We decided this week we wanted to give her a shot tonight because she’s really earned it.”

Grace Niekelski likewise had an impact on the glass in the second half, but Villa Maria just seemed to get every rebound it needed to especially in the fourth quarter. McCartney told her players going into the final frame to forget the previous three periods and just win the last eight minutes.

Doing that meant getting the ball out of Lauren Vesey’s hands. The Magic sophomore scored a team-high 15 points to go with four rebounds, an assists and five steals. Her three-point play in the third pulled Mount St. Joseph’s within 29-28, with her team taking a brief lead a few possessions later.

The Hurricanes were able to start keying in defensively on Vesey and either forced her to give up the ball or funneled the guard into their length down low, which led to tough shots.

“We have to do a better job of getting the other girls on the floor in position to score,” Roynan said. “I have to do a better job of putting them in position to do that and take some of the pressure off Lauren.”

Villa’s Paige Lauder led all scorers with 19 points and 14 rebounds, while Abby Walheim also posted a double-double with 13 points and 10 boards. Both teams committed a high number of turnovers, with the Hurricanes giving the ball up 19 times and Mount losing it 20.

That’s the type of thing both coaches feel can be corrected, as long as their teams keep showing up with the kind of energy they played with on Sunday.

“If we take this kind of effort into districts, we can make a big run,” Roynan said. “If we compete that hard and play that hard every time we take the floor, we’re going to be really hard to beat. Someone’s going to have to bring their best effort to beat us and I think Villa Maria did that tonight.”

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