HERSHEY – One could tell by its gate, its steely focus, by its overall body language that the Palmyra boys’ basketball team knew something that no one else knew. It wasn’t as much a secret as a quiet confidence that what it knew was right and that the rest of the world was wrong.
All the outcome did was validate the Cougars’ belief.
On Monday night at Hershey’s Giant Center, a confident Palmyra bunch stunned the District Three Class AAA world and top-seeded Susquehanna Township, 68-58 in the semifinals of the tournament. Backed by a game-high 29 points from senior Logan Stovall, Palmyra played at its pace, protected the basketball, worked the fundamentals and played smart and under control, while getting some fortunate bounces, and then ultimately some help from a frustrated band of Indians.
Mixing in a little man-to-man with a zone defense, the Cougars led almost the entire way and by 15 points entering the fourth quarter, before Susquehanna Township made its obligatory run. The Indians cut the Palmyra lead down to 57-54 with three minutes to go, but the Cougars buried Township with ten-f0r-ten free throwing down the stretch.
The win sent the 13th-seeded Cougars, now 18-7, into Thursday’s District Three Class AAA final against third-seeded Berks Catholic, which downed number-two seed Donegal 41-38 in overtime. Bigger, stronger and more athletic Susquehanna Township slipped to 24-3 overall – with two of its three losses coming at the hands of the Cougars.
During regular-season Mid-Penn Keystone Division clashes, Palmyra had beaten Susquehanna Township 65-57 at home on Jan. 4, and lost to the Indians 63-53 on the road on Jan. 29. Those prior outcomes played a profound role in what transpired on Monday.
“This was an upset,” said Palmyra head coach Pete Conrad. “Susquehanna Township was obviously the favorite coming in. They were picked to win by three. But I was trying to get to Vegas to get some of that.
“That’s one great thing about this group, they didn’t come here to lose,” Conrad continued. “They weren’t happy to be here. But there’s a reason they’re (the Indians) 24-2.”
“We’ve been practicing all week and we knew what this team (Susquehanna Township) could do,” said Cougar guard Trey Baker. “Luckily, we had good match-ups. They’re (the Indians) an excellent team. They played well. We’re really familiar with them and that they never give up. But we knew we could definitely beat them.
“Right now, we’re playing some of our best basketball of the season,” Baker added. “I think people over looked us, but we’re good. We showed we’re the real deal and that we need to be taken seriously.”
Palmyra grabbed an early lead, and getting solid contributions from seemingly everywhere, and methodically increased it throughout. The Cougars netted the final five points of the third quarter – on a three-pointer and a couple of charity tosses from Stovall – to carry a 48-33 advantage into final period.
During the initial five minutes of the last stanza, Susquehanna Township outscored Palmyra 21-9.
“Susquehanna Township is great. Everyone knows that,” said Conrad. “But we had confidence we could play with them. We beat them, and had them beat for three quarters at their place. That’s half the battle. So many teams are intimidated by them before the ball goes up.
“Trey Baker kept saying on the bench, ‘We’re not going to stop attacking. We’re not going to stop attacking,'” said Conrad. “We’ve got to give these guys some leeway to do what they want to do. And free throws, that’s how big games are won – at the foul line. It’s something we’ve worked hard on.”
“Coach always says, ‘Play hard, play smart and play together,'” said Baker. “And that helps. We’ve been playing together since elementary school, and that bond is tough to beat.”
The Cougars tallied the first four points of the second half, courtesy of two charity tosses and a drive from Baker, to open a 34-23 cushion. Another hard drive to the hole by Baker, with 3:11 of the third quarter remaining, pushed Palmyra’s advantage to 41-29.
“Against their post players, the fact that we can drive the ball is big,” said Conrad. “That’s the great equalizer, the ability to play that stretch lineup. We got beat on the glass, but we had to give up something to get something.
“It’s been our calling card – everybody contributing,” Conrad added. “That’s what we hang our hats on. It’s certainly a strength.”
“I think the key was mixing a lot of defenses,” said Baker. “Mixing them up threw them off and didn’t allow them (the Indians) to get into their game.”
Given his shooting ability, quick first step and long arms, the 6-3 Stovall, who has sacrificed personal numbers for the good of the team this season, proved to be a difficult match-up for the Indians. His 29 points consisted of two three-pointers, six deuces and 11-for-12 foul shooting.
Baker and Adam Newhard supported Stovall with 13 points apiece. Palmyra, which did an admirable job of limiting its turnover count to eight, outscored the Indians 27-6 at the charity stripe.
“Logan was tremendous,” said Conrad. “He’s so talented and so unselfish. He’s unselfish to a fault. I said to him tonight, ‘You scored 29 points on the Giant Center floor, what are you going to do in the championship game?’
“He always does that (puts the team ahead of himself),” continued Conrad. “He’s one of the best teammates I’ve been around. He easily leads us in charges taken. When we play him at the five (center), they’re (the Indians) going to play him with a post player and get all over the glass. He’s spent a lot of time battling bigger players.”
“When he catches fire, there’s no stopping him,” said Baker of Stovall. “He’s one of the best players in the league.”
Actually, the Cougars only trailed once, 3-2. A trey from Newhard in the middle of the opening quarter gave Palmyra a 13-8 lead.
Then a second before halftime, Baker was fouled on a three-point attempt and he calmly sank a pair of foul shots to give the Cougars a 30-23 margin in the locker room.
“Shawn (Robinson) was in foul trouble, but he did a great job of controlling the tempo and protecting the ball,” said Conrad. “Eight turnovers, that’s pretty good. Shawn, Chris Lynn, Trey Baker and Adam executed some astonishing ball handling.
“I thought those guys all did good things,” added Conrad, “partly because Susquehanna Township is so balanced. I thought it was a great defensive effort.”
“I think it was our second preseason practice and Coach gave us a goal list, and winning a district championship was one of them” said Baker. “We’re here and it’s real. And it’s definitely attainable.”