BY JEFF FALK
READING – It was a two-possession game with 0.8 seconds left on the clock. Ron Berman had one timeout remaining, and he took it.
It may have been the first time in the never-give-up Berman’s long career that he had ever taken a timeout for other-than-strategic purposes. But Berman had never had a group of players like this before, either.
It was the defining moment of a game, of a season, of an era.
On Tuesday evening at Reading High’s Geigle Complex, the most successful era in the history of Palmyra girls’ basketball – and perhaps all of Lebanon County girls’ basketball – came to an emotional screeching halt, as the Cougars fell to gifted Central Bucks West 61-55 in the semifinals of the PIAA Class AAAA playoffs. Though the effort was once again pure, the Cougars met their match in a physical and offensively skilled Central Bucks West group.
Following a back-and-forth first half, the Bucks grabbed a double-digit lead in the third quarter that they would never relinquish. Though they certainly didn’t quit, the Cougars had neither the offensive skills or the defensive answers to claw all the way back.
Palmyra, the runner-up out of District Three, concluded its campaign at 27-5. During their four-year careers, Cougar seniors Maria Tukis, Kristen Smoluk, Katie Dembrowski and Katy McClellan compiled an astonishing 104-15 overall mark, made four trips to the PIAA tournament, qualified for the state final four in both Class AAAA and Class AAA, won a District Three Class AAA championship, captured a Mid-Penn Conference title and wore three Keystone Division crowns.
Central Bucks West, the District One champion and now 32-1, will meet District Three champion Cumberland Valley, a 56-40 winner over District Seven champ Norwin, on Friday at 6 p.m. at Hershey’s Giant Center for the Class AAAA state championship.
“I just told them how proud I was of them,” said Berman of the emotional timeout. “We fought to the end and we were two possessions away from the state championship game. I just wanted to get the seniors some recognition and get some other kids in the game. It was to recognize what we accomplished.
“I couldn’t be any prouder,” continued Berman. “Here we ware in the final four in our first year in Quad-A, that says it all. To take one step at a time and keep getting better, it was very rewarding. Although we have a couple of nice Division Three players, we didn’t have a Division One recruit out there. We don’t have anyone over 5-10. We always played hard and we always had each other’s back. To the very end, we were trying.”
Trailing by ten points entering the final quarter, Palmyra – in true Cougar fashion – refused to back down or go away.
Molly Gundermann and McClellan drained back-to-back three-pointers to trim Palmyra’s deficit to 50-46, with 6:20 to go. But the Cougars would go without a point over the next critical 3:33, until Tukis’ driving lay-in made it a 56-48.
Dembrowski would follow with a jumper and Smoluk converted a free throw to pull Palmyra to within 56-51, with 1:12 to go. But Tukis fouled out five seconds later and C.B. West made good on three of five free throw attempts in the final 27 seconds to seal it.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had any team playing better at this point of the season than this team,” said Berman of his warriors. “This team does a lot of great things. There’s no area where we can say, ‘This is a weak area’.
“You don’t get lucky to get here,” Berman continued. “You have to have tough kids, and our kids are really tough. Our concern going in was that we were down at least 30 pounds per player, and that we weren’t as strong as they are. And this team (C.B. West) is not a slow team, by any means.”
Gundermann, the lone junior among Palmyra’s starting five, pumped in 15 points to lead the Cougars, while Tukis netted 12 and Smoluk counted ten in their final games. The Bucks’ Nicole Munger canned 21 points to lead all scorers, teammate Mackenzie Carroll struck for 19 and Corrinne Godshall chimed in with 11.
“You need to make some shots,” said Berman of the formula for a comeback. “They’re a good team, and we were able to turn them over, but we couldn’t capitalize. We had spurts, but we didn’t get hot. It gets back a little bit to offensive execution.
“It’s a tribute to how they move the ball and how explosive they (the Bucks) are off the dribble,” added Berman. “You help off one player and she’s going to kill you. It’s not like there’s anyone on that team that you can’t cover. I’d rather have them make a drive to the basket than give up a ‘three’. If Tukis can’t stop them, then we can’t stop them.”
With four seconds remaining in the second period, Carroll closed out a first half which featured five ties and five lead changes with a three-pointer. And when Central Bucks West opened the third quarter with six unanswered, it had a 38-29 advantage.
Dembrowski and Gundermann followed with consecutive Cougar treys to move Palmyra to within 38-35.
“I would’ve liked a few more calls on charges,” said Berman. “I thought we took a bunch of charges, and there were some more out there. We had to get that type of officiated game, not that the officiating was bad.
“We really didn’t slow them down,” Berman added. “They average 65 points and they scored 61 points against us. We couldn’t stop them. They have three Division One kids out there. They’re more skilled offensively than we are.”
After Palmyra grabbed a 4-0 lead on a bucket from Tukis and a pair of charity tosses from McClellan, C.B. West tallied 12 of the next 16 points. But a Gunderman three-pointer 1:30 into the second stanza capped an 11-3 Cougar burst – one which also included four points from Tukis, a Gundermann lay-in and two Smoluk foul shots – that gave Palmyra a 19-15 margin.
A Smoluk three-pointer 2:43 before the break made it a 25-25 game, and a Josie Stovall foul shot 15 seconds ahead of halftime made it a 29-29 game.
“C.B. West is an excellent basketball team,” said Berman. “They do so many great things. They have so many good players. They have too much strength and too many offensive weapons. We haven’t played a team, except Cumberland Valley, which moves the ball as quickly and as crisp, as they do.”
As Lebanon County’s last team standing, Palmyra’s loss concluded one of more successful local basketball campaigns in recent memory.
‘Play hard. Play smart. Play together. And have fun.’
Central Bucks West
|5:30 PM||W 68-38|
|7:00 PM||W 64-26|
|7:30 PM||W 44-39|
|7:30 PM||W 52-43|
|7:30 PM||W 52-41|
|7:30 PM||W 43-27|
|7:30 PM||W 66-37|
|7:30 PM||W 64-40|
|2:00 PM||W 53-38|
|6:00 PM||W 45-39|
|7:30 PM||W 68-35|
|7:30 PM||W 48-35|
|12:30 PM||W 52-35|
|7:30 PM||L 26-29|
|7:30 PM||W 64-59|
|12:30 PM||W 66-32|
|7:30 PM||W 44-37|
|7:30 PM||W 59-38|
|7:30 PM||W 66-33|
|7:30 PM||L 61-65|
|7:30 PM||W 59-25|
|7:30 PM||W 42-29|
|6:00 PM||W 49-35|
|6:00 PM||L 54-70|
|02/17 * #||
|7:00 PM||W 61-39|
|8:00 PM||W 54-27|
|5:00 PM||W 48-42|
|8:30 PM||L 25-26|
|8:00 PM||W 48-35|
Mount St. Joseph
|6:00 PM||W 57-38|
|6:00 PM||W 54-42|
@Central Bucks West
|6:00 PM||L 55-61|
Final Lebanon Sports Buzz
Lebanon County Girls’ Basketball Rankings
2. Cedar Crest
3. Lebanon High
4. Northern Lebanon
6. Lebanon Catholic