BY JEFF FALK
HERSHEY – It means playing within your limitations, accentuating your strengths and downplaying your weaknesses. The only thing more important than a district championship to the Palmyra girls’ basketball team right now is being true to itself.
On Monday night at Giant Center, who the Cougars are was good enough to defeat Cedar Crest 48-42 in a rare and historic meeting between two Lebanon County squads in the semifinals of the District Three Class AAAA playoffs. Palmyra grabbed an early advantage, led by two-to-three possessions most of the way and never allowed the Falcons to get any closer just by doing what it does.
The Cougars truly were, and are, a good defensive team, a sharp-shooting one and a club which will physically lay itself on the line for each other.
The outcome avenged top-seeded and now 24-3 Palmyra’s 65-61 late-regular-season, overtime loss at the Falcons’ ‘Cage’, but more importantly pushed it into Friday’s 8:30 p.m. District Three Class AAAA final against the winner of Tuesday’s other semifinal match-up between second-seeded Cumberland Valley and third-seeded C.D. East. The loss, just the second in its last 21 outings, relegated fourth-seeded Cedar Crest to 22-5 overall and into Friday’s third-place game, versus the CV-C.D. East loser.
Both the Cougars and Falcons had already qualified for next week’s PIAA Class AAAA tournament.
“I thought we had an advantage going into the game,” said Palmyra head coach Ron Berman. “The last time we played them we did not have any time to prepare for two 6-2 players. We played here two years ago and they had never been here before, and I thought that was a little bit to our advantage. And I don’t know how much was taken out of them by the three-overtime game (against Mechancisburg in the quarterfinals). Fortunately we hit some shots and we never trailed.
“I said to Jim (Cedar Crest coach, Donmoyer) before the game that they really put their pieces together,” continued Berman. “Winning the Lancaster-Lebanon League was a tremendous achievement. Their team was very strong. Now you’ve got two great teams going on to states. It’s great for county basketball. It’s been a great season for Lebanon County basketball. I’m really proud of all the county teams and the coaches.”
“We didn’t play well at all,” said Donmoyer. “They (the Cougars) did what they normally do. They pressed and they played man (-to-man) all game. We didn’t execute. We didn’t shoot well. They (the Cougars) did what they needed to do. I just wish we would’ve played a better game.
“We know their team,” Donmoyer continued. “It’s not a secret. It’s talent, experience and size. Both teams have that. I put on my (white) board, ‘hard work’, with a question mark.”
Cedar Crest made a number of runs at Palmyra’s lead throughout, but each one was repelled by the Cougars.
The last one came with 1:23 left, when Falcon senior guard Nikki Wagner converted a driving lay-in to a three-point play that pulled her side to within 44-40. But the Cougars answered with free throws from Maria Tukis, Katie Dembrowski and Molly Gundermann over the next minute to pretty much ice it.
Midway through the final stanza, Rachel Miller had gotten Cedar Crest to within 40-37 with a three-point field goal. But a minute later, Tukis responded for Palmyra with an old-fashioned three-point play that made it a 43-37 game.
“Yeah, that was really big,” said Berman of Tukis’ ‘hoop and harm’. “You don’t want Cedar Crest to be within three. They have too many kids who can shoot.
“I know a lot of people were saying this (the district semifinal) is playing for second place,” added Berman. “They said we didn’t earn the number-one seed. We worked really hard to get to the finals and to get the number-one seed. Our three losses, we lost to three really good teams. We had to show that these girls earned what they got.”
“No, I don’t think that game mattered,” said Donmoyer of the earlier meeting with Palmyra. “We played nowhere close to the way we played them at our place. If we would’ve played with that effort, we would’ve been OK. I don’t want to say ‘flat’. We weren’t as sharp as we normally are.
“Nobody likes trailing,” Donmoyer added. “No one wants to be losing. We had 14 points in the first half. We usually do that in a quarter. Defensively, I think we did OK. We held them under 50 points. They’re a great team. Offense is what let us down. We weren’t aggressive on the offensive end.”
With Palmyra protecting an eight-point lead, the Falcons closed the third stanza with a three-point play from Austin and opened the final quarter with a N. Wagner drive to trim it to 32-29. But when McClellan made her own three-point play and Smoluk canned a couple of free throws the Cougar lead was back to eight.
Earlier, Gundermann, McClellan and Smoluk had powered a third-quarter 7-1 burst that jacked Palmyra’s margin to 32-24. The Cougars had led by nine points at the intermission, before Cedar Crest opened the second half on an Alex Rich-Emmi Wagner-Austin inspired 9-2 spree.
You get the idea.
“Front the post and try to get help from the weak side,” said Berman of the Cougars’ game plan on Austin and Maddie Rakow. “We gave up 26 points on lobs and put backs the first time we played them. Everybody plays her (Austin) that way. We didn’t want her to dominate. We told the girls, ‘Let’s keep her away from the basket’.
“I’ve got great respect for Cedar Crest, and what Jim has done down there,” Berman added. “Cedar Crest was the team that was there. We wanted to win the next game.”
“No, that was Friday. Today is Monday,” said Donmoyer to the notion his troops were still feeling the effects of Friday’s big quarterfinal victory. “That’s three days. Yeah, it was emotional. But we should’ve been excited and confident.”
Smoluk paced the Cougars with 16 points, while Tukis collected ten. But just as important to the result were senior Katie Dembrowski’s defensive efforts on Falcon guard Ariel Jones and the defensive jobs by Gundermann and Josie Stovall on Austin.
Palmyra knocked down a total of six three-point field goals and outscored the Falcons 14-5 at the charity stripe. N. Wagner fronted the Falcons with 13 points.
“I’d like to give credit to Molly Gundermann and Josie Stovall,” said Berman. “We changed the way we defended her (Austin). When you front her, she’s always inside. We tried to play behind her and limit her offensive boards.
“Katie Dembrowski is as competitive an athlete as I’ve ever coached,” Berman continued. “If anyone is going to slow her (Jones) down it’s Katie Dembrowski. But you’ve got to give up something.”
“Not executing. The effort. Not playing hard,” said Donmoyer. “We weren’t aggressive off the dribble. They (the Cougars) switched up against ‘The Bigs’. Our game is dribble-drive-kick or dribble-drive-dump-into-the-post. It’s a combination.”
The Cougars finished off the first half with a 7-2 run, to extend their 16-12 margin. Stovall canned a three-pointer, Tukis sank a free throw and Smoluk drained a trey that beat the second-period buzzer.
“Obviously we were playing for one shot,” said Berman of Smoluk’s long ‘three’. “When it goes in, it looks really good. We were fortunate it went in.”
“I said to him (Berman) before the game that we want to have them (the Cougars) on our schedule,” said Donmoyer. “It’s two county teams. Two county teams in the district semis and two of the top-ranked (Class AAAA) teams in the state. You just like playing county teams. It’s something we want to do all the time.”
Palmyra enjoyed an early 9-2 cushion, thanks in part to ‘threes’ from Gundermann and Smoluk, a conventional three-point play by McClellan and by holding the Falcons without a point for nearly five minutes. But Cedar Crest ended the first quarter with a jumper from N. Wagner that made it 13-8.
“They’re both great teams, let’s face it,” said Berman of Cumberland Valley and C.D. East. “We’re going to try to win the game. We’re not going into the game thinking we’re a sacrificial lamb. We lost to Cumberland Valley by 16 points (in the Mid-Penn championship game), but I don’t think we were embarrassed.”
“Obviously we wanted to win and play in the district final,” said Donmoyer. “That’s why we came here. Everything’s special here. It’s Giant Center. I don’t know how many people thought we’d be here.
“We’re not going to see Palmyra, Cumberland Valley or C.D. East in the opening round of states,” added Donmoyer. “We played a heck of a schedule. The more we can play, the better off we’ll be. I’d rather play than practice.”
Cedar Crest (42)
|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|
|7:30 PM||L 38-51|
|6:00 PM||W 55-42|
|7:30 PM||W 67-37|
|7:30 PM||W 55-41|
|7:30 PM||W 45-19|
|7:30 PM||L 48-49|
|7:30 PM||L 42-45|
|6:00 PM||W 67-23|
|7:30 PM||W 61-57|
|7:30 PM||W 55-32|
|7:30 PM||W 71-50|
|7:30 PM||W 62-31|
|7:30 PM||W 91-36|
|7:30 PM||W 61-29|
|6:00 PM||W 41-31|
|7:30 PM||W 51-34|
|7:30 PM||W 43-28|
|7:30 PM||W 51-28|
|7:30 PM||W 65-61|
|7:30 PM||W 56-39|
|7:30 PM||W 56-25|
|6:00 PM||L 47-58|
|7:00 PM||W 68-62|
|7:00 PM||W 47-33|
|02/14 * #||
|1:00 PM||W 58-49|
|6:00 PM||W 59-42|
|6:30 PM||W 61-56|
|5:00 PM||L 42-48|
Lebanon Sports Buzz
Lebanon County Girls’ Basketball Rankings
2. Cedar Crest
3. Lebanon High
4. Northern Lebanon
6. Lebanon Catholic