MC
Chili

MOUNT UNION, Pa. -- Muhlenberg (23-5) put forth its third consecutive strong defensive effort of the postseason to beating Catholic 63-54 to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years. The Mules will play host Mount Union, a 73-63 winner against La Roche on Saturday.

Junior Alita Zabrecky led the offense with 19 points, and senior Alexandra Chili added 18 to break another scoring record.

Catholic made two field goals in the first minute, part of a game-opening 7-0 run, then connected on only five the rest of the half. The Mules held the Cardinals to 23.3 percent from the field in the first half.

The key was the defense provided by Muhlenberg’s point guard trio of senior Katy Rossino, sophomore Colleen Caldwell and freshman Hannah Rush.

“We tried to take them out of their comfort zone. We noticed that whenever we pressured them, they made bad decisions or backed up,” Rossino said. “When they backed up, we were able to play defense the way we wanted to.”

The offense was playing the way it wanted to at the beginning of the game, except for making shots. After the Mules missed their first six tries, sophomore Leeann Lanza connected on back-to-back baseline jumpers to kick off an 11-0 run, and Muhlenberg never trailed again.

“We were getting good shots. We knew we were doing what we needed to do,” Chili said. “Everyone stayed aggressive, and that opened up the court for all of us.”

Ahead 29-23 at halftime, the Mules scored the first eight points of the second half to open up a double-digit lead.

In a career filled with highlight-reel plays, Chili made another one midway through the second half when she batted an inbounds pass under the basket, caught the deflection and beat everyone else down the court for a layup. for the first time. The first two came on a baseline jumper by Chili that gave her 1,974 points -- the most by any Centennial Conference player, male or female.

Muhlenberg eventually upped its lead to 17 before the Cardinals made a mini comeback. An 8-0 run cut the Mules’ advantage to seven with less than six minutes to play, and a 3-pointer with 50.2 seconds on the clock made it 57-51.

Zabrecky made both ends of a one-and-one with 39.5 ticks left, and Chili found Lanza wide open down the court on a press break for a game-clinching layup.

Lanza finished with 12 points, one of three double-figure scorers on a Muhlenberg offense that recorded 19 assists on its 22 baskets.

“A lot of games where it’s close and we feel pressure, we rush our shots or drive and try to play one-on-one,” Rossino said. “Tonight, it seemed almost every play we got a lot of reversals and got an open shot. We really ran our offense very well and very effectively.”

And then there was the defense, which held the Cardinals to 28.6 percent from the field and forced 14 turnovers. In their current eight-game winning streak, the Mules are holding opponents to 27.9-percent shooting.

“We decided we needed to improve our defense if we wanted to be successful in the postseason, because that was one of our weaknesses,” Chili said. “You can’t win in the NCAAs without playing defense.”

And Chili, Rossino and fellow seniors Kimberly Mui and Kathleen Naddaff know all about winning. The victory against Catholic gave them a school-record 93 for their careers, breaking the mark set by the Class of 2009.

“It’s really exciting to see how well we’ve done for four full years. We know how much of a tradition there is here,” said Rossino, before somewhat reluctantly adding, “I hope next year’s class breaks it.”

“I hope we win some more,” Rossino said.