By John Knebels

Special to The CS&T

It’s the little things that often turn a runner-up into a champion.

Take, for instance, last week’s Catholic Academies League basketball final at Gwynedd-Mercy College.

As Mount St. Joseph tried desperately to cut into Villa Maria Academy’s lead down the stretch, the only strategy left for the Magic was to foul the Hurricanes and hope they missed their free throws.

That didn’t happen. Instead, the ‘Canes drained 12 of their final 13 attempts to keep the Mount at bay, and when the buzzer finally sounded, Villa Maria had prevailed, 45-33, and was league champion for the second time in four years.

“We work hard on all aspects of our game, including foul shooting,” said Villa coach Kathy McCartney of her team, which finished 18-6 in the regular season. “We play in a lot of close games and you need to be able to make those down the stretch.”

Villa finished 14 of 17 from the line, with sophomore Brooke Angelos (5 for 5), junior Brianna Forde (4 for 4) and junior Ellen Cannon (2 for 2) a composite 11 for 11. In the fourth quarter, Angelos and Forde connected on a combined 8 of 8, most of them of the swish variety.

McCartney said her team’s significant respect for the Mount prepared them to play hard from start to finish.

“They’re a great team,” said McCartney. “They can score and play defense, and no lead is safe against them.”

Explaining the particularly long faces on the Mount players was their inability to maintain what had been a euphoric season. The Magic entered the game with a perfect 23-0 record and an overall winning streak of 28 dating back to last season, which ended with a PIAA Class AAA state championship.

The only blemish for the Mount was through no fault of its own. Senior and Harvard-bound star Elle Hagedorn missed the game because of a severely sprained ankle. The obvious whispers after the game were whether the outcome would have been much different had Hagedorn been able to play the way she had in a 41-37 victory over Villa on Jan. 29 and an earlier 43-34 triumph over Villa exactly three weeks earlier.

To his credit, Mount coach John Miller refused to speculate.

“Our approach was to come in and win the game with the players we had,” he said. “Injuries happen. When they do, someone has to step up and fill the void. We played hard but we struggled a lot with our offense, but Villa had a lot to do with that.”

Cannon, the superb point guard who missed much of the early season dealing with a stress fracture, took over in the second half. En route to a game-high 19 points and an amazing one turnover despite playing the entire game, Cannon scored 15 points in the final two quarters and 11 during a 13-4 spree that widened a tentative 20-15 lead into an almost-insurmountable 33-19 advantage.

Senior Erin Mann contributed 13 points and seven rebounds and looked lost in la-la land while holding the championship trophy in front of her teammates.

“This was one of our goals,” she said. “It’s an amazing feeling.”

The feeling may continue starting this weekend, when fourth-seeded Villa, after a first-round bye, plays in the second round of the district tournament, as does top-seeded Mount St. Joseph’s. The defending district champion Hurricanes, who beat the Mount in the district final last year, may again face the Mount later in the season in both districts and states.

That’s something the Mount is obviously hoping for. At that point, Hagedorn should be recovered enough to compete along with senior Jen Sabia and sophomore Mary Jo Horgan. The pair combined for 24 points in the loss to Villa.

“It would be fun to play them again,” said McCartney. “Every game seems to go down to the wire. It’s a great rivalry and very intense.”

In the end, it will no doubt come down to a little thing that will decide the difference.

Something, for instance, like free throws.

John Knebels can be reached at