Heavy Northeast influence helps St. Basil to state win

St. Basil Academy sophomore forward and Mayfair resident Natalie Kucowski has become a triple-double threat on a nightly basis for the Panthers, who advanced to the second round of the Class AA state playoffs with Friday’s 52–34 win over Philadelphia Academy Charter. St. Basil will play York Catholic in the next round, Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Coatesville Area High School. KEVIN COOK / FOR THE TIMES

Natalie Kucowski sure knows how to stuff a stat sheet, which is a big reason why St. Basil Academy and its 10 girls basketball players from the Northeast Philadelphia area are still playing into the second week of March.

Kucowski, a 6-foot-2 sophomore forward for St. Basil and Mayfair resident, does a little bit of everything for the Panthers. In Friday night’s 52–34 opening-round Class AA state playoff game against Philadelphia Academy Charter School (PACS), Kucowski’s versatile skill-set was on full display, much like it has been this entire season. She scored seven points, pulled down 10 boards, blocked five shots and even dished out four nifty assists, mostly hitting teammates streaking to the basket on back-door cuts.

The five blocks, believe it or not, is on the low end for Kucowski, who is averaging around nine blocks a game to go along with 11 points and 10 rebounds. St. Basil head coach Terry Mancini said she’s notched at least six triple-doubles for the Panthers this season, and the fact that she’s nearly averaging one shows just how far she’s come since her freshman season. As a result, St. Basil finished third in the Catholic Academies League (16–8 overall, 9–4 in league play) and the team won its third straight District 1 title. Against PACS, a total of 10 Basil’s players scored, and the Panthers used an early 25–0 run to quickly take the undermanned Lady Chargers (just seven players on their roster) out of the game quickly. The win propelled the Panthers into the second round, where they will take on York Catholic, the District 3 champion, Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Coatesville Area High School.

“To see everyone scoring means everyone is contributing,” Kucowski said. “Last year, we had eight seniors, which helped a lot because they were older and stronger and made sure to push us underclassmen to get better for this year, when we only had two seniors. That carried over, and we push each other in practice every day to be the best we can be. Everybody goes hard and brings it every day … it’s not just me.”

Kucowski’s older sister, Charlotte, was a member of the girls basketball team at St. Hubert, where she graduated in 2013 (Charlotte just completed her sophomore season at Gwynedd-Mercy University, where she averaged 8.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game). However, Natalie Kucowski opted to attend St. Basil’s, and she’s not the only one on the roster from Northeast Philly. Joining the St. Matthew grade school product are Molly Deal and Brielle Piecyk (freshmen from St. Cecilia), junior Arianna Sticco and freshman Juliana Gura (Resurrection), junior Erin Buckley and freshman Danielle McCurdy (St. Albert the Great), freshman Lindsay Ems (Our Lady of Calvary), junior Alyssa O’Mara (St. Christopher) and junior Kaeley Pinkerton (St. Anselm). Although St. Basil is located just outside of the city in Jenkintown, two-thirds of its roster hails from the area.

“We like the types of kids we get here, especially the ones from the Northeast because they’re just good, tough kids,” said Mancini, a Northeast native himself. “They’ve progressed greatly, and I think one of the things that draws them here, besides the winning, is that we don’t give players specifically-numbered positions. For example, Natalie is a traditional ‘5’ because of her height, but this is a girl who played point guard for her eighth-grade team. She liked that she had the opportunity to handle the ball, break the press and shoot. She doesn’t get in foul trouble, and her basketball IQ is off the charts.”

“It all starts in practice, and Natalie works so hard in all aspects of her game there,” added Buckley, Kucowski’s junior teammate, who scored a team-high eight points against PACS. “Obviously she has great height, she boxes out and gets rebounds, she blocks shots and she’s a really good passer and shooter. She can ball-handle and post up. We really count on her, and as she’s improved she’s gotten more confident. All around, she’s just an amazing ballplayer.”

St. Basil advanced to the state quarterfinals a season ago, and is hoping to get even farther this time around. With their resident triple-double machine playing at the top of her game, in addition to a deep, balanced roster, the Panthers feel they have what it takes to go on a deep run.

“Here, every game counts, and every game could be our last,” Kucowski said. “All the other winter sports have ended, but we’re still playing, and that’s a great thing. We all love the game of basketball and don’t want it to end. We especially want to keep playing for our two seniors, so our goal is to just keep advancing and try to win a state championship.”

In won’t be easy, and while Mancini realizes that, he also realizes his chances to go on a deep run are higher with a dominant frontcourt player like Kucowski. Even scarier? Mancini said she’s just scratching the surface and will only get better as her game continues to develop.

“She’s only a sophomore, so you have to remember this is still a young kid,” Mancini said. “The sky is the limit for her because of the talent she has. She’s a hard worker, and we’ve talked to her about playing Division I basketball. That’s her goal. She listens, takes it all in and is very intelligent. Her potential is just off the charts.”

And with Kucowski and her Northeast Philly brethren leading the charge, the same can be said for the future potential of the St. Basil’s program. ••

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