HERSHEY – Offense or defense. Full-court or half-court. Rebounding battle. Free-throw shooting contest. H-O-R-S-E? What do ya got?
Name the game. And not only will the Palmyra girls’ basketball team play it, the Cougars will beat you at your game.
On Wednesday night at Hershey’s Giant Center, the flexible Cougars ran their win streak to open the 2012-13 campaign to 27 games by pulling away from Gettysburg 44-29, during a semifinal contest of the District Three Class AAA playoffs. After sparring with the Warriors for 24 minutes, Palmyra discovered its stride in the fourth quarter and outscored them 18-5.
While it certainly wasn’t an offensive masterpiece engineered by Palmyra, the Cougars’ sticky man-to-man, helping defense more than made up for it
Now 27-0, the Cougars will be gunning for their third championship of the winter season on Saturday at 11:15 a.m. back at Giant Center, in the District Three final. Palmyra’s next obstacle will be sixth-seeded Susquehannock, which knocked off second-seed West York, 43-42.
Gettysburg, the number-five seed in the tournament, fell to 20-6 overall.
“Since the end of the regular season, we’ve only had one game that was easy, that we were able to create separation,” said Palmyra head coach Ron Berman. “The last six games have been tough games. I was a little worried about the emotional part of it. It takes a lot out of a 65-year-old, I should know.
“This year has been a magical ride for us,” Berman continued. “You know you’re getting everyone’s best shot. Emotionally, it’s tough to get up all the time. We just couldn’t put the ball in the basket tonight. And we were getting good looks.”
“Like Coach always says, the (being undefeated in the) regular season shows you can show up every night,” said Cougar senior guard Kate Carmo. “Most postseason games can be your last one. Being undefeated doesn’t get you anything, it doesn’t get you bonus points. It’s hard work that got us here, and that’s going to help us in the future.
As has become their trademark, the Cougars pressed man-to-man full-court, from the opening tap to the final whistle. And by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, Gettysburg’s physical tank was running low, and the Warriors began abandoning their offensive sets and going one-on-one.
Nursing a 28-26 edge, Palmyra held the Warriors without a point for a key four-minute stretch early in the fourth,and tallied eight unanswered points. First Carmo converted a three-point play, then teammate Gabi Gundermann nailed a trey and finally Carmo scored on a driving lay-up, to push Palmyra’s advantage to 36-26.
Eventually, the Cougars put the outcome on ice by netting the contest’s final eight points, all from the charity stripe. Carmo, G. Gundermann, Carly Richardson and sophomore Katie Dembrowksi all made good on their free throwing.
“When we went up four, my staff said to me, ‘Do you want to pull it out?'”, said Berman. “I said I think we’re about to hit a ‘three’. And on the next pass Gabi stuck one. I guess I should play the lottery.
“We just wanted to pick them (the Warriors) up in the fourth quarter, work them and wear them down,” Berman added. “That’s what we were hoping to do. I thought they looked tired at the end. When you have two really good players, when crunch time comes, the other players look to those two to do it.”
“We wore down their guards,” said Carmo. “That was one of our keys of emphasis. Their guards didn’t have legs at the end. And we knew we could handle their pressure.”
Despite going scoreless for a five-minute span late in the third, Palmyra exited the period with a two-point edge, thanks to a foul shot from Kristen Smoluk. And when Smoluk scored on a drive down the lane to open the fourth, the Cougars had a 28-24 margin.
“I don’t want to say we hang our hat on defense,” said Berman. “But defense is something we can control. Because we’ve got multiple-sport athletes, we spend 65 percent of our time in practice on defense. Offense is something you can practice in the backyard.
“We tried for years to go 94 feet (defensively), but it comes back to having athletes,” Berman added. “Maria Tukis, Katie Dembrowski, Gabi Gundermann, they can run all day. And there’s no use holding back a thoroughbred.”
“Our shots weren’t falling,” said Carmo. “We were relying on threes and then we tried to get it inside. We just had each others’ backs. We felt like we had it under control, and then we pulled away.”
Carmo’s 14 points led the Cougars, while Richardson, back in the lineup after missing the previous contest with an ankle injury, recorded nine points. Palmyra’s athleticism also showed in the foul category and at the free throw line, where it connected on 22 of 31 attempts and outscored Gettysburg by 19 points.
“It makes all the difference having Carly in the lineup, but not the 15 points a game. It’s the ten or 12 rebounds,” said Berman. “Having Carly makes a huge all-around difference. Defensively it’s key having Carly back there and being able to move girls around, that and her defensive rebounds.
“Carly was healthy enough that there was no risk for her,” continued Berman. “I’d say she was 75 percent. But Carly at 75 percent makes me a good coach.”
“We kept them under their average,” said Carmo of the Cougars’ overall defensive performance. “That was pretty big. We focused on their two key players. And we just had to hit the boards well. And we definitely stepped it up on the help side.”
Palmyra tallied the first five points of the game on a stick-back from Katy McClellan and a three-pointer by Richardson, and then opened a 14-9 lead on two foul shots from McClellan 2:33 into the second period. But Gettysburg scored the next five points, and teams went to the locker room knotted at 17.
“You get a lot of energy when you make baskets,” said Berman. “I think the kids believe in each other, and we know we’re good shooters. For whatever reason, we were rushing around the basket.
“But it’s not life or death,” Berman concluded. “It’s basketball.”