SPRINGFIELD >> Getting over Mount St. Joseph had put Erica DeCandido and the Gwynedd Mercy girls basketball team at the top of the Athletic Association of the Catholic Academies. And the view was one for the Monarchs to savor.
“Just amazing to represent our school like this and come out as a team and play that hard,” DeCandido said. “I think that it means so much to not only this team but the student body that came out and the school itself. I think it’s a great way to represent who we are and what we stand for. Hard work pays off.”
Tuesday night’s contest at La Salle College High School had everything expected in a championship game. Packed gym, two large, vocal student sections and a tight contest settled in the fourth quarter with GMA ultimately the victor, earning its first-ever AACA title — and denying Mount a fourth straight crown — with a 35-28 win.
“Everyone was really supportive of each other, saying we can’t lose this, we worked way too hard for this to come down to the very last shot,” DeCandido said. “And I think that our defense was phenomenal. And it was two, good defensive teams. Danielle Senour played out of this world. I think she played amazing. And Maggie Cameron played great defense. They should not go unnoticed.”
For the Monarchs, it was a culmination of a steady climb up to the top of the league in their three seasons under coach Tom Lonergan. Two season agos, GMA got into the league’s four-team playoffs. Last year, Gwynedd Mercy came up short to the Mount in the final, but this time GMA made sure it can lay claim to being the Catholic Academes’ best since the school joined the league in the 2002-2003 season.
“So, the first year, we made it to the playoffs,” Lonergan said. “Well, they’ve never made it. So, to be in that playoffs, we ended up playing the Mount in the first round. And we lost, we lost big to them in the first round, but it gave us experience, we were there. So then in the second year we when we got there, it was no big deal, we were there. We got to the finals, lost.
“So today, we kept making those steps, kept making those strides. We were mentally, I think, ready to play today.”
After splitting their two matchups this regular season, neither team led by more than five points Tuesday until the final minute with the game featuring three ties and nine lead changes.
Threes to end the third and start the fourth had Mount leading 26-25 before a long Carly Heineman two made it 27-26 Gwynedd. Cameron’s transition layup made the margin three before Libby Tacka drove for a basket to pull the Magic to within 29-28.
But Senour, who finished with a team-high 10 points, answered by knocking down a jumper off a drive to put GMA back up three at 31-28.
“Our coach (Tom Lonergan) tells us what we all bring to the team. He says that mine’s my driving,” Senour said. “So I think it kind of was in the moment. I didn’t know I was going to do it, I saw the open opportunity and I just went for it knowing what the situation was in the game.”
After a missed Mount three, Brigit Coleman made both ends of a 1-and-1 with 63 seconds remaining for a 33-28 advantage. Gwynedd tacked on a few more free throws and in the final seconds dribbled out the win, with its student section avalanching from the bleachers to celebrate.
“In the final seconds, you see the clock count down, then you see everyone running out to you, it’s just amazing,” Senour said. “You feel so proud that you did it for your team and your school. You’re really proud of yourself.”
Senour, recently put into the starting lineup after being GMA’s sixth man, gave her side the boost on offense it needed in the first half, scoring eight of the Monarchs’ 16 points as the teams went into halftime tied 16-16. The junior did not score again until late in the fourth, but those two points came when needed.
“I think the past couple games I’ve been defensive. I knew coming into that game I couldn’t just play defensively and I had to play offensively,” she said. “So, I was working on my shot earlier and I think I was able to carry it into the game. All the practice, I just had the confidence going in that I knew what I had to do.”
And as exciting as winning the program’s first Catholic Academies title, Gwynedd Mercy now turns its eyes to repeating as District 1-AAA champ. The Monarchs’ defense begins Feb. 19 with a quarterfinal contest against either Springfield-Montco or Pottsgrove.
“It was sad for the seniors cause that was our last time ever playing Mount. We knew we had to come out really hard, really strong,” DeCandido said. “And I think that this is just a springboard for districts and then for maybe even states. We believe that we can go really far.”