On the surface, quite a bit has changed since the first time the Mercy and Institute of Notre Dame basketball teams met 50 years ago in the inaugural edition of what quickly became known as The Game.
The players now are more polished. The venue, more sparkling. The alumnae, a tad grayer.
On a frigid night in Towson, however, more than 3,000 screaming fans again packed SECU Arena, most in full, deafening voice, to witness a rivalry that once again proved to be one of the hottest, male or female, in the Baltimore area.
IND wasn't about to let the moment slip by.
Sophomore Ja'Lyn Armstrong scored a game-high 14 points and fellow guard Amber Kappner-Jones added 10, as the Penguins used suffocating defensive pressure to help build a double-digit lead by halftime in a 41-26 win Friday before an announced 3,431.
After more than a week away from practice, IND took more than a quarter to get rolling. Once the Penguins did, however, the Magic had few answers
“I told all 15 of them, ‘We may not be in the best shape, but we all need to come out and play hard,” said IND coach Robert DuBose, whose team traveled to Glen Arm on Thursday specifically to practice on the old court once housed in the Towson Center. “We picked it up, and the girls came through.”
And when Armstrong was forced to the bench after picking up her second foul, teammates including Kappner-Jones and freshman La'Shyra Williams (eight points) helped pick up the slack.
“Coming into a big stadium like this, it's nice to know that I have my teammates to back me up,” Armstrong said.
IND (12-6) now has won three straight games in the series for the first time since taking four in a row from 2003 to 2006. Mercy still leads the all-time series, 30-20 — counting only the final meeting each season — but the teams are now even (19-19) since 1979.
It also marked the second time this season IND has beaten Mercy, following a 54-31 win in December.
Nerves, as well as more than a week off of practice, were apparent early as neither team scored for the game's first 3:57. Mercy (2-15) and IND started the game a combined 2-for-17 from the field with 17 turnovers, ending the opening quarter tied at 5 after Mercy's Morgan Cobb nailed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
With his team out of sync and making several unforced turnovers, DuBose called a timeout to regroup.
“I said, ‘Let's snap back and get back to it. Just be patient,'” DuBose said. “It could be a simple play, but if you execute it and execute it hard, it will work.”
In the second quarter, the Penguins took over, scoring nine straight points, including a 3-pointer and three-point play by Kappner-Jones, to quickly build a 14-5 lead.
Kappner-Jones scored nine of her team's first 14 points.
“Whenever we hit that first shot, that's when we get our momentum,” Kappner-Jones said. “We just looked to get that shot, so we could get going.”
Forcing turnovers with suffocating traps, IND continued to pull away after halftime, extending its lead to 28-12 by late in the third quarter.
The Magic, however, weren't done, quickly cutting into the lead when Grace King followed Kameel Smith's jumper with a 3-pointer of her own to put Mercy back within 13 early in the fourth. They would later cut the lead to 12, but could get no closer.
Katelin Holt led the Magic with eight points.
This night, however, was about far more than just basketball.
Former players and alumnae from both schools arrived hours before game time in what annually turns into a basketball-themed reunion. Cheerleaders delivered special cheers, choruses sang alma maters and Baltimore Archbishop William Lori even delivered a pre-game prayer. He was careful to split his time on opposite sides of the court, so as not to show favoritism.
Lori said the meaning of The Game goes far beyond sports.
“They're coming together and competing in a beautiful, healthy way,” Lori said. “I think this is a great example of how you can be competitive but you can be friendly all at the same time.”
That wasn't necessarily foremost on the minds of the people who originated The Game. Pauline Smith, the first basketball coach in Mercy history, said the idea was born mostly out of necessity.
“It started because I had no money to run my program,” recalled Smith, 77. She pitched the idea of a rivalry game to the father of one of her junior varsity players, who ran promotions for the NBA's Baltimore Bullets.
“I said, ‘We can bring thousands of fans there to watch the Bullets game,'” said Smith, who sold tickets for $1.50 each. “It started out of desperation, but that's how The Game started — because we needed money.”
For the first three years, Mercy played another school, Seton, in what also was billed as The Game, prior to Bullets games at the Civic Center. Following three years, however, IND took Seton's place, launching the series in its current form.
She recalls the early series games as a sea of black and white in the stands, courtesy of the habit-wearing nuns.
“It was big and it was loud,” Smith said. “It was like going to a college game. It got so it had a life of its own. It's become quite a tradition. I'm just happy to be a part of it.”
Aimee Weatherly has been going to The Game since she was a freshman at IND in 1985. As the daughter of a 1964 IND graduate, Jeanne Wenger, she grew up around The Game.
This time, however, was different.
For the first time, her youngest daughter, Meghan, was a member of the varsity team.
“I'm very nervous for her,” Weatherly said 90 minutes before tipoff. “My heart's just pumping.”
Former IND player Margaret Doyle said she felt the same kind of nerves she remembers from her playing days in the mid-1980s.
“I still get nervous for the players. Seeing them on the court brings back a lot of awesome memories,” said Doyle, who was part of an IND team that captured a Catholic League title in 1986. “You don't really ever lose that feeling.”
Nobody knows that quite like former Mercy player and longtime coach Mary Ella Marion. She played in the series three times, coached from 1985 to 2013 and is now the school's dean of students.
“I think it's pretty much the same. The enthusiasm and the spirit is still there,” Marion said. “Each school adds something a little bit different in terms of spirit week and little things that they do in terms of traditions. But a lot of it is still the same, and I think that's what sells it. It doesn't change. People can come back after not being at The Game for a while, and even though the venue is different the feeling is still the same.”