Mount Saint Joseph makes its stand, rallies past Gwynedd Mercy

SPRINGFIELD >> With the gym rocking as two full student sections, some in costume, all in school colors, dueled, the Mount Saint Joseph Academy girls basketball team turned to its foundation.

The Mount views itself as a defensive team, so that’s what the Magic were going to have to use if they wanted their mob of purple-and-gold faithful to go home happy. Trailing by 10 to open the fourth quarter against a scorching hot Gwynedd Mercy Academy, the Mount leaned on its defensive foundation and built a stirring comeback.

Defense channeled into offense as the Mount came all the way back and edged the Monarchs 47-44 in an AACA classic Friday evening.

“We’ve been having a bit of a rough season when it comes to playing together and getting the ball in the basket but before the game we talked about playing as a team and understanding it was a game of runs,” Mount junior guard Lauren Vesey said. “We knew at one point, we were probably going to be down, we came together in the fourth quarter and made some clutch shots.”

Mount Saint Joseph’s Taylor Sistrunk reaches in to knock the ball away from Gwynedd Mercy’s Kaylie Griffin during their game on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. (Gene Walsh/Digital First Media)

It’s true that the Magic have struggled to score the ball this season and for three quarters Friday, they found Gwynedd Mercy’s zone defense to be an unbreakable shell. The Monarchs kept the Mount swinging the ball around the perimeter and swarming to the spot of the next pass, frustrating the hosts.

On the other end, GMA came out firing and making. Sophomore Kaylie Griffin, who led all scorers with 18 points, shot 3-of-3 from beyond the arc in the first quarter to contribute all her team’s scoring for a 9-6 edge.

Using plenty of high elevator-door screens, the Monarchs thrived on a drive-and-kick offense in the first half and shot 7-of-11 from 3-point territory. At the half, GMA led 25-16 and had scored just two baskets inside the arc.

“They did a good job setting those elevator screens high, especially for Kaylie, and we didn’t do a good job of communicating and switching on those,” Mount coach Jim Roynan said. “We have a defense for those and we didn’t do a good job of it.”

The Magic came out for the second half determined to defend their way back into the game. Vesey started the third quarter with a steal and layup and the Mount used a 9-3 run to cut the Monarchs lead to 32-27 with 2:53 left in the third.

Gwynedd, which had been quiet from three, got a hit from freshman Bianca Coleman then a buzzer-beater from Griffin from about 25 feet out to send the Monarchs into the fourth ahead 39-29.

“I told the girls at the quarter break, stay together, play hard and we can do this if we just play defense,” Roynan said.

The heave put Griffin at 18 points and it would be the last points she got in the game. Roynan challenged Taylor Sistrunk to guard Griffin, saying the junior is the team’s most athletic player and a tremendous defender.

Sistrunk didn’t score a point but her play was just as pivotal in the Mount’s win as any other player on the court. No play was more pivotal than the five-second call she drew guarding Griffin with 41 seconds left and the Magic clinging to a 44-41 lead.

“We just had to dig deep basically, there were four minutes left and we were down,” Sistrunk, who added four rebounds and two steals, said. “We kept pushing it and pushing and made them turn the ball over.

“That call, there was a minute left and I had to play really hard and just worry about her. I knew my teammates would back me up if she got by me.”

Mount Saint Joseph’s Kelly Rothenberg battles Gwynedd Mercy’s Sarah White for a rebound during their game on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. (Gene Walsh/Digital First Media)

Getting to that point was a credit to not only the Magic’s defense, but as Sistrunk noted, much better ball movement offensively. The ball started to find its way into the middle of the Monarch’s zone, with Grace Niekelski leading the effort with both scoring and passing.

Mount opened the fourth on a 9-0 spurt offensively before Griffin drove and found Alyssa Martin for a layup to temporarily clot the bleeding. Niekelski found Kelly Rothenberg for a layup in response and then, following a steal by Sistrunk, Niekelski drew a foul and sank both at the line to give the Magic their first lead at 42-41 with 2:50 left.

“I don’t think we were ready for their zone, we had to work on a new game plan on how to get it in and down and not just settle for the three,” Niekelski, who paced Mount with 15 points, said.

The Magic upped their aggression on defense in the second half, with Vesey adding they were much more determined to fight through Gwynedd’s screens and communicating, even over the nonstop noise of the capacity crowd. With Vesey, who had nine points, six rebounds and a pair of steals, at the head of the press, the Mount got the Monarchs to play faster than they wanted.

GMA shot just 3-of-9 from 3-point range in the second half, including a buzzer-beater at the final horn with the outcome decided as the Magic either chased the Monarchs off the line or kept them from kicking to shooters. In turn, it opened up the inside but Gwynedd Mercy wasn’t able to take advantage.

“We shot 1-of-9 on layups, we weren’t taking threes but we got layups and weren’t finishing,” Monarchs coach Tom Lonergan said. “We didn’t go to the line at all and shot 1-of-9 in the paint. They got more aggressive defensively, which allowed us to get more shots inside. We have to learn to relax and settle ourselves down to do a better job of finishing.”

Even after Lauren Cunningham, who scored all five of her points in the final quarter, put Mount Saint Joseph up 44-41, the Monarchs had several chances to either cut the lead to one or tie the game.

“With them going to a more aggressive man than they’d showed for three quarters then throwing in the 1-2-2 at us, we were able to get behind it but we have to do a bigger job of finishing,” Lonergan said. “The biggest disappointment is we gave up 18 points, they got to the line way too many times and you can’t allow teams to score easy.”

The Mount took 24 foul shots in the game to just three for Gwynedd Mercy. Both teams had Friday’s game circled on the calendar, as the two filled sections of students proved, and the Magic hope the outcome can be a springboard for them.

Gwynedd Mercy’s Reganne Flannery drives to the basket during the Monarchs’ game against Mount Saint Joseph on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. (Gene Walsh/Digital First Media)

“It’s Gwynedd, we wanted to win anyway but them being our rival team and having everyone out to support us was great,” Sistrunk said.

“Now we know what it’s like to play as a team,” Niekelski said. “I think that can carry over for us into the rest of the season.”

Roynan said it was a credit that every player who saw time Friday found some way to contribute and after the game, he told the players if they play that way in every game, they can go wherever they want.

“We talked after the game that everyone stepped up in the their own way and it was the right game to step up in,” Vesey said. “Everyone contributed something and it helped us overall as a team.”

MOUNT SAINT JOSEPH 6 10 13 18 – 47
GMA: Kaylie Griffin 6 2-3 18, Sarah White 1 0-0 3, Alyssa Martin 1 0-0 2, Reganne Flannery 2 0-0 5, Mollie Hanson 2 0-0 5, Bianca Coleman 4 0-0 11, Carly Bachinsky 0 0-0 0. Totals: 16 2-3 44.
MSJ: Lauren Vesey 3 1-2 9, Kelly Rothenberg 6 2-7 14, Lauren Cunningham 1 3-4 5, Grace Niekelski 5 4-5 15, Audrey Bryce 1 1-2 3, Grace Morrow 0 1-2 1, Taylor Sistrunk 0 0-2 0, Maggie Zipfel 0 0-0 0. Totals: 16 12-24 47.
3-pointers: M – Vesey 2, Niekelski; GMA – Griffin 4, Coleman 3, White, Flannery, Hanson.

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