Gwynedd Mercy Academy rallies late to slip past Mount Saint Joseph

LOWER GWYNEDD >> While they can’t use it all the time, the Gwynedd Mercy Academy Monarchs know it will be there when they need it.

Trailing by six points against archrival Mount Saint Joseph Academy on their home floor with 4:36 to go in the fourth quarter, the Monarchs took a timeout and broke out their press defense. Once it got going, the Monarchs’ press turned things around with forced turnovers and a couple big shots flipping the script.

Gwynedd Mercy Academy closed the game on a 12-2 run, rallying to defeat Mount Saint Joseph 51-47 on Saturday afternoon to remain undefeated on the season and in the AACA.

“It was all that timeout,” GMA senior Kaylie Griffin said. “We came together and said we were going to win this game, we just had to keep up the intensity on both sides of the floor and just bring it. We couldn’t let them go on a run, we had to keep moving the ball and keep playing our game.”

In ideal settings, Gwynedd Mercy Academy (8-0, 8-0 AACA) coach Tom Lonergan would like to use the full court press more, but this season just isn’t meant for that to happen. With players having to wear facemasks, Lonergan knows it’s not smart to ask his players to go all out for 32 minutes so it’s more a matter of picking and choosing.

That “break glass in case of emergency” approach means the players aren’t using as much in games, but they’re still extremely confident in putting their practice into play when it’s called upon. Outside of standout senior Grace Niekelski, the Magic (5-4, 5-4 AACA) are a relatively young team so the Monarchs figured getting them sped up would increase the odds of a comeback.

“We don’t use it much but we work on it so when we do go to it, it’s been very effective for us,” Lonergan said. “With four minutes on the clock, I told them we had no choice. They love playing it, but 28 minutes into the game, the legs are tired. I give them credit, they sucked it up and hung in there, not too many teams can run off 10 points in the last minute of a game.”

A steal by Hannah Griffin, who figured prominently in the final act, led to a long outlet to her older sister Kaylie for a layup and a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter. The rest of the half would belong to the Mount behind a nuclear offensive effort from Niekelski.

The senior wing, a Dartmouth recruit and third team all-state selection last year, found her zone and stayed in it, ripping off 12 straight points for the Magic in the middle of an 18-4 run as the visitors took a 25-20 lead to break. Niekelski finished with 18 and was a force on the backboard with 17 rebounds and four assists.

“She’s just a fabulous player,” Lonergan said. “I told Sofia (Coleman) she played great defense on her, but Grace is just an incredible player and when she starts hitting those threes, it’s hard to slow her down.”

Mount Saint Joseph’s Grace Niekelski (22) puts up a shot against Gwynedd Mercy Academy

As the Monarchs left their gym feeling good about the comeback win, the Magic had to depart knowing they let one get away. Gwynedd Mercy Academy’s pressure caused too many problems with Mount Saint Joseph turning the ball over six times in the fourth quarter and unforced errors like a couple missed layups and foul shots allowing the Monarchs to keep their run going.

“We can’t let that happen, we didn’t handle the pressure well and made too many silly plays,” Mount coach Matt Feeney said. “The turnovers killed us, you can’t close out a game against a good team and expect to win if you don’t do it properly.”

Feeney said the Magic have faced pressure before this season and had dealt with it fairly until Saturday. The end of the game put a damper on an otherwise good game for Mount Saint Joseph. Sophomore Georgia Pickett had 12 points and two assists, Chloe McGrorty hit some timely shots and the Magic’s defense gave GMA some problems.

The Mount, which entered the day No. 8 in the District 1-5A power rankings is also hoping to secure a spot in the AACA’s four-team playoff and has three games remaining; hosting Villa Maria Academy, visiting St. Basil Academy and finally heading to Merion Mercy.

“It was a lot of things that had been uncharacteristic of us,” Feeney said. “We didn’t handle it and I honestly don’t know why. We’ll really look at the film, I don’t know if it was a scheme standpoint or we just mad poor decisions, we’re going to work on it.

“One positive thing, we don’t often make the same mistakes twice.”

Halftime allowed the Monarchs to regroup. The Mount had been playing a triangle-and-two defense, face-guarding Kaylie Griffin and Coleman, so the hosts looked for ways to break that down.

With Bianca Coleman out due to injury and Hannah Griffin in foul trouble, the Monarchs got a lift from their supporting players like Maddie Newell, Julia Masterson and Jenna Mangan. Kaylie Griffin also elevated her level of play in the second half, scoring seven points and assisting two baskets in the third quarter as GMA closed within 33-31 before adding eight in the fourth for a 24-point afternoon.

“I was thinking this might be my last Mount game and Grace is one of my best friends, but I had to beat her,” Griffin, who has signed with St. Joe’s, said. “We adjusted to their defense which gave me some more opportunities to shoot so that helped me get going.”

“Our whole team really stepped up,” Hannah Griffin added. “Early in the season, they may not have been getting the reps but they still worked hard and they got in the game today and played really well.”

A three by Niekelski followed by a McGrorty layup assisted by the senior put the Mount up 45-39, prompting the GMA timeout and application of the press defense. After trading mini-runs, the Magic led 47-43 on a hoop by Nikelski with 1:26 left.

Then Hannah Griffin, who had not scored, hit the two biggest shots of the game. Newell and Kaylie Griffin forced a turnover that led to Masterson finding Hannah Griffin for a 3-pointer that cut the lead to 47-46 with 48.1 to play.

“At some point, we decided we don’t want to get beaten,” Hannah Griffin said. “We’re having a great season so far and we saw them going on a run so we wanted to stop it. It’s just heart and how you decided you want to play when that happens.”

GMA got called for a foul following the three, but when the Mount couldn’t convert the front of the one-and-one, the Monarchs got another look and once again, Masterson found Griffin for three. The younger Griffin’s second shot put the Monarchs up with 30 seconds left, a lead they wouldn’t give back.

Instead of celebrating, Newell and Kaylie Griffin went back to work, double-teaming the ball on the baseline and forcing another steal. Newell was a catalyst in the comeback and the guard finished with seven points, four steals and plenty of other disruptive plays on defense.

The Mount had one last chance, but a good look at the rim wouldn’t go and Sofia Coleman grabbed the rebound and hit a pair of freebies to ice the end result.

“It was important for us to see as a team, we can be down six and still win the game,” Kaylie Griffin said. “If we never give up, we can find a way to score and find a way to fight back as long as we play defense and stay focused.”

GWYNEDD MERCY 10 10 11 20 – 51
MOUNT SAINT JOSEPH 7 18 8 11 – 47
Gwynedd Mercy: Kaylie Griffin 7 7-9 24, Maddie Newell 3 0-2 7, Hannah Griffin 2 0-0 6, Sofia Coleman 4 4-4 12, Jenna Mangan 1 0-2 2. Totals: 17 11-17 51.
Mount Saint Joseph: Grace Niekelski 7 1-3 18, Kiersten Pumilia 2 0-0 5, Lauren Hoffman 1 2-6 4, Chloe McGrorty 3 0-0 6, Georgia Pickett 6 0-0 12, Paige Metzler 1 0-0 2. Totals: 20 3-9 47.
3-pointers: G – K Griffin 3, H Griffin 2, Newell; M – Niekelski 3, Pumilia.

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