Gwynedd Mercy Academy prides itself on the theme of mercy. It is emphasized in the school’s mission statement, embraced by current and former alumnae, and mentioned daily during the sign-off of every anchor at the school’s GMATV television station.
At a sold-out La Salle High School Feb. 9, GMA’s basketball team was far from merciful while facing rival Mount St. Joseph’s in the Catholic Academies League championship. Turning up their defense to another notch, the Monarchs used a decisive fourth quarter to upend the Magic, 35-28, and secure their first-ever CAL post-season championship. A week earlier, Gwynedd had captured the regular-season title.
“This is just an unbelievable feeling,” said junior Danielle Senour. “We gave it everything we had. When everyone came running out to join us at the end, it’s hard to describe how great that was.”
While league MVP Erica DeCandido, GMA’s leading scorer, finished with seven points, Senour supplied pivotal offense with a season-high 10 points. Recently inserted into the starting lineup, Senour befuddled the Mount (19-5) for the first 16 minutes, scoring four points in both the first and second quarters, as the teams dispersed to their locker rooms at halftime tied at 16.
In the third, GMA (19-4) seized control behind four points from DeCandido, three from senior point guard Brigit Coleman (8 points), and two from sophomore Carly Heineman (6 points). But a long three-pointer by senior Caitlyn Cunningham (game-high 11 points) at the buzzer closed the Mount’s deficit to 25-23.
“In the fourth quarter, I think our defense was the key,” said DeCandido, who singled out senior Maggie Cameron. “We made a lot of stops and our offense started to work a little better. Everyone believed in one another.”
At that point, Coleman said she was thinking about how much it stung to lose in the 2014-15 league final.
“We wanted to redeem ourselves from last year,” she said. “When it came to the fourth quarter, we had to finish it out.”
The Mount took its last lead at 26-25 when junior Ashley Smith (10 points) nailed a three-pointer 49 seconds into the final stanza. Heineman regained GMA’s edge with a short jumper with 6:30 remaining – the game’s 13th lead change. The Monarchs would never trail again.
A highlight-reel, court-length pass from Coleman to a streaking Cameron resulted in a layup that increased the Monarchs’ lead to 29-26 with 2:59 left. Senior Libby Tacka answered with a bucket, but the Mount would not score again.
Suddenly looking as confident as ever, GMA completely shut down the Mount over the last two-plus minutes. Buoyed by another basket by Senour and two free-throw swishes by Coleman, the Monarchs punctuated the triumph with a 6-0 run while forcing three straight turnovers.
“Our defense at the end was very good,” said a hoarse, and thoroughly exhausted, head coach Tom Lonergan. “When we needed to be at our best, we were.”
As the clock turned to zeroes, the GMA faithful, almost all donned in red, poured onto the court accompanied by shrieks of joy. Minutes later, the team was formally presented with the league’s trophy.
Eventually, everyone had to leave the gym. On her way out, the Mount’s Cunningham was supported by her family.
“I’m really sad about this,” she said.
Right behind her was a GMA student.
“Hey,” she shouted toward Cunningham, “you played a great game.”
The basketball championship now decided, that mercy charism had returned to GMA.
John Knebels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.