ROSEMONT — A year ago, District 1 Class AAAA Tournament games were about as devoid of drama for the Spring-Ford girls basketball team as Comedy Central.
This winter, however, the Rams' district tourney journey has simply been one wild ride.
Wednesday night, Spring-Ford delivered another edge-of-you-seat episode by turning back top seed Mount St. Joseph Academy 34-33 in a district semifinal clash of titans at Harriton High School.
Senior forward Shelby Mueller had team-highs of 10 points and seven rebounds and Sammy Stipa — celebrating her 18th birthday — knocked down the go-ahead jumper with 3:22 left in the game as the two-time defending district champion Rams (23-5) advanced to Friday's District 1-AAAA final against North Penn, set for Villanova University at 7 p.m.
Pioneer Athletic Conference champ Spring-Ford, which rallied from 17 down in the second half to beat Penn Wood in the second round and staged a fourth-quarter comeback and dodged a potential game-winning shot against C.B. West in the quarters, clawed its way out of an early 11-point deficit to take down the Magic (25-3), ranked first in the state in Class AAAA by PennLive.com.
"I definitely think these kinds of situations in the last couple games have helped us become more composed and keep playing until the very end,' Mueller said.
What also helped was a defensive effort by the defending PIAA champion Rams — who are ranked second in the state — that allowed just one basket over the final 13:13 of the game.
After the Magic came flying out of the gate behind the due of Villanova-bound star guard Alex Louin (game-highs of 17 points and 11 rebounds) and sophomore guard Libby Tacka to take a 14-3 lead less than six minutes into the contest, Spring-Ford coach Mickey McDaniel scrapped his man-to-man defense and employed a 2-3 matchup zone.
It worked wonders, as the Magic scored just 17 points over the final three quarters after taking a 16-7 lead after one.
"I think what really brought us back was getting into the 2-3,' said Rams junior guard Abby Beyer, who had six points and six rebounds. "They were controlling the tempo when we were in the press (early), but that (the zone) allowed us to control the tempo.'
Did they ever, as the Magic shot a woeful 1-for-18 from 3-point range.
"I thought we were in good shape early,' Mount St. Joseph coach John Miller said. "And I thought we did everything right but win the game.
"If you tell me we hold Spring-Ford to 34 points, I tell you we win the basketball game. In our zone offense we got the shots we wanted, we just couldn't make open shots, and that's not like us.'
Beyer and Molly Hynes made a couple of big shots for Spring-Ford — back-to-back 3s to open the second quarter and get the Rams back into their flow.
Mount St. Joseph Academy, which led 20-18 at the half, ran off the first six points of the third quarter — going up 26-18 on an inside basket by Mary Kate Ulasewicz with 5:13 left in the period.
But the Magic went ice-old from there, missing all but one of their final 15 attempts from the field.
"I thought we played tremendous defense,' McDaniel said. "Our zone was really on tonight, and I think we kind of threw them out of rhythm. That was one of our goals.'
The 5-10 Mueller came to life midway through the third quarter, contributing a basket and foul shot to begin a 14-2 run keyed by her and Maggie Locke that culminated in Mueller's inside basket that put the Rams up 30-28 with 5:31 left in the fourth quarter.
Louin, a 6-footer who has scored more than 1,400 points, answered with two foul shots to tie it back up 25 seconds later before Stipa's short pull-up jumper gave the Rams the lead for good.
Julia Roshelli followed with a runout basket after a missed 3 by Louin to give Spring-Ford its largest lead at 34-30 with 2:06 left, and the Rams regained possession and appeared in good shape to kill the clock. But Louin came up with a spectacular strip of Stipa that resulted in a three-point play that cut the Spring-Ford lead to one with 1:33 left.
Stipa then fouled out with 1:13 left on an offensive foul call that had the Rams bench and fans howling, and the Rams had to survive a missed 3-point bid by Louin and — after a Rams turnover — two missed shots by Colleen Steinmetz in the closing seconds.
"That's three in a row like this,' said McDaniel, who had to conduct his postgame media chat from a chair in the hallway outside the gym after suffering an apparent Achilles injury to his left leg while jumping to call a timeout in the final minute. "That's a sign of a poised team that's gaining good experience.
"One of the things that really helped us in these games is the tough schedule we played during the regular season. Sometimes when you have to scrap and claw, it's even more rewarding. As a staff we just love these girls, how they battle and never give up.'
"We had a weak start, but we believed in each other an had confidence,' Mueller said.
Mount St. Joseph Academy, which had beaten Spring-Ford 39-34 in the Scholastic Play-By-Play Classic at Philadelphia University Jan. 11 and saw a 12-game winning streak snapped (the Magic had an average victory margin of 25.5 over their previous 11 games), meets Bayard Rustin in a PIAA seeding game Saturday.
"I thought we did everything right but win,' Miller said. "Sometimes you have to give credit to the other team. Tonight they were one point better than us.'
As the Rams continued what has been a thrilling joyride through districts.
Stipa, battling a cold, finished with six points to increase her school-record career point total to 1,276, 30th in area history. ... Emily Walker had four rebounds as the Rams finished with a 27-26 edge on the glass. ... Spring-Ford has won 14 straight District 1 games and is 31-4 in postseason play since the 2010-11 season.
Follow Darryl Grumling on Twitter at @MercSmokinD.