HERSHEY – No one loves a good challenge like the Palmyra girls’ basketball team. When faced with one, not only do the Cougars welcome it, they embrace it.
The difficult part for Palmyra is sometimes finding them.
On Saturday night at Milton Hershey School, the undefeated Cougars stared down perhaps their biggest challenge to date, and then dispatched Eastern York 72-63 in overtime of a District Three Class AAA quarterfinal test. Not only did Palmyra beat a quality Eastern York squad firing on all cylinders, but it did so without top gun and emotional leader Carly Richardson, who was confined to the bench by an ankle injury.
It wasn’t easy, but challenges never are.
After trailing 55-45 with less than three-and-half minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Palmyra tallied the final ten points of regulation – and survived two front ends of one-and-ones, one with three seconds to go – to send the contest to ‘bonus basketball’ . Once there, Palmyra dominated Eastern York, outscoring it 17-8.
After senior Gabi Gunderman nailed a trey to open the extra session, Palmyra held EY scoreless for another 3:22 and assumed a 71-57 advantage on two free throws from Maria Tukis with 26 ticks left in OT. During that decisive stretch, Palmyra also got charity tosses from Kate Carmo and Kristen Smoluk.
The win sent the now 26-0 and top-seeded Cougars into the Class AAA semifinals and Hershey’s Giant Center, for a Wednesday 4 p.m. meeting with Gettysburg, which ousted Big Spring, 48-39. The loss relegated Eastern York to 17-8 and into the consolation portion of the bracket.
“They were challenged,” said Palmyra head coach Ron Berman of his charges. “They felt challenged. But there’s a lot of winning athletes there. They’re kids who love to compete. I think they took the approach, ‘let’s compete to the end.’
“One of our goals was to get back to the Giant Center and we accomplished that,” Berman continued. “For me personally, part of it was winning without our best player. It’s a team. It’s about the team. The system’s there. What was important was getting to the Giant Center, moving to the next round and getting a chance to do it as a team.”
“It was a huge challenge without Carly there,” said Gabi Gundermann. “It gave everybody the opportunity to see how other players could do. We’re not a one-man team. It showed off everybody else and how hard we play.”
With their scrambling man-to-man defense holding the Golden Knights without a point for the final 3:43 of regulation, the Cougars were getting four key points from Katie Dembrowski, an old-fashioned three-point play from Smoluk. a Molly Gundermann lay-in and a foul shot from Tukis to tie the score at 55.
Palmyra had a chance to win it at the end of regulation, but two strong moves to the hoop, first by G. Gundermann, and then by Tukis, were denied and no foul was whistled. But who was called for a foul was G. Gundermann, with three seconds showing on the fourth-quarter clock.
The Cougars survived when Eastern York’s Leah Myers misfired on her free throw attempt.
“We had a chance to win it,” said Berman. “We made some plays down the stretch. On the final play, we did what we wanted to do. We wanted to get the ball to Gabi and crash the boards. Unfortunately, on our hustle, we fouled them.”
“I was unbelievably disappointed in myself,” said Gundermann of Palmyra’s final possession in regulation. “But we still had hope. They still had to make their foul shot. That missed foul shot was huge. But it’s not a good situation to be in.
“We’re very happy with the win,” Gundermann continued. “When it comes down to one possession, anything can happen. We had guts and took over in overtime. We weren’t planning to come here and play and lose.”
After taking momentum to the halftime locker room, the Cougars could not sustain it in the third quarter. Struggling offensively and not helping each other in their man-to-man, Palmyra was outscored 14-6 in the stanza.
Early in the fourth quarter, Eastern York led by double digits on four separate occasions – 47-37, 49-39, 51-41 and 55-45.
“I don’t want to say its (staying unbeaten) not important,” said Berman. “But to me, that accomplishment is done. It got us the Keystone (Division) championship and that’s done. I never talk about 24, 25, 26. Everybody knows it. But now we got two more things going on. We extended the season for two more weeks. That’s important. We now have two extra weeks of practice, and it’s quality practices.
“Cumberland Valley was the best team I saw play,” said Berman, “and we played our very best. I couldn’t say the same thing about tonight. Obviously it was a test being down ten with four minutes to go. But compared to the Cumberland Valley game, we didn’t play as well.”
“We’re all so aware of it,” said Gundermann of the ten-point deficit in the fourth quarter. “But Coach Berman says we can be down 15 with two minutes left, as long as he has all of his timeouts.”
With Richardson looking on from the bench, Smoluk paced the Cougar attack with 19 points. Gundermann notched 17 points and Tukis contributed 13, all from the charity stripe.
Palmyra canned an amazing 33 foul shots, and outscored Eastern York, which went six-for-13 there, by a whopping 27 points.
Richardson could return to the Palmyra lineup as early as Wednesday.
“Carly was a great leader on the bench. She said some things to kids that almost brought me to tears,” said Berman. “But her being out changed our defensive assignments a lot. I got Kate Carmo into foul trouble trying to guard the big girl. And with Carly out, we can’t turn up the heat as much. It changes rotations, but all of our kids can play.
“I took Kate (Carmo) and Gabi aside and told those two they had to have great games,” Berman continued. “Now that doesn’t mean they have to score 30 points. It just means they have to be leaders and make big plays.”
“We have a system, and we’re all inter-changeable,” said Gundermann. “We’re all about the same size. We knew we had to get more rebounds. We knew we had to score more points, and that could’ve come from anyone. But Carly’s a great person to have on the bench cheering you on.”
While it may not have fully discovered how to play without Richardson until overtime, Palmyra particularly struggled with it at the outset. Eastern York entertained a 20-6 lead five minutes in.
But over the next seven minutes of action – employing its athleticism and taking advantage of getting into the foul bonus early – Palmyra outscored the Golden Knights 19-8, and closed to within 28-25 on a three-pointer from Smoluk. Then on the strength of a three-pointer from Dembrowski, a steal and lay-up by Smoluk, a foul shot by Tukis and a huge put-back from Alison Langley, the Cougars canned the final eight points of the first half and took a 33-31 edge to the intermission.
“We were shaky at the beginning,” said Berman. “It was a tough team to match up with. We talked during the timeout, ‘this is the way we play. We’re going to play hard and play with intensity.'”