BY JEFF FALK
HERSHEY – One really couldn’t describe what happened to the Palmyra girls’ basketball team at Milton Hershey School yesterday as the Cougars ‘shooting themselves in the foot’. Such a statement would imply that the Cougars could hit what they aim at.
On Saturday afternoon, in the quarterfinals of the District Three Class AAA playoffs, reigning champion Palmyra chose the absolute worst time to struggle through one of its worst shooting performances in recent memory. The Cougars couldn’t throw ‘The Rock’ in an ocean and fell to West Perry 42-25.
In their lowest point output this season, the Cougars shot an icy 16 percent from the floor – eight-for-51 – and did not connect on any of their 22 three-point field goal attempts. With nine-for-13 free throwing, the foul stripe was where Palmyra did its most efficient work.
Palmyra’s second loss in its last three outings placed it in the precarious position of having to win its next game to keep its season alive. Now 20-4 overall, second-seeded Palmyra will look to do so on Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Central Dauphin East High School, in a game that amounts to a state qualifier.
After winning three championships last season, it now appears unlikely that the Cougars will add to their trophy case this year.
West Perry, the number-ten seed, will carry a 19-5 mark into Wednesday’s Class AAA semifinals.
“I don’t know why,” said Palmyra head coach Ron Berman. “We were ready. We executed the offense. We got good shots. The bottom line was we couldn’t put the ball in the basket. If you can’t score, you can’t set up your fullcourt press. And our whole game is predicated on full court pressure.
“We had 12 more possessions than them,” continued Berman. “Fifty-one shots, and make eight, that’s 16 percent from the floor. I felt like I was at my grand-daughter’s fourth-grade game. It’s hard to get into a zone when you don’t have anyone over 5-10.”
To add injury to insult, in the last minute of the third quarter, Palmyra senior leader Carly Richardson went down with a re-aggravation of an ankle injury sustained Monday in practice. Richardson appeared to be moving well while in the game, but was only a shell of her healthy self.
After managing no more than six points in any of the first three quarters against West Perry’s active 2-3 zone, Palmyra was sitting on 15 total points, two-and-a-half minutes into the fourth period. By that time, West Perry was looking to build on a 12-point cushion.
“Obviously our goal was to defend our championship,” said Berman. “We don’t change those things until someone takes them away. We’re not here for a good time. Our goal was to get something. Now our goal is to get to states. That’s the only one we’ve got left.
“From what I’ve seen, the best eight (Class AAA) teams were left,” Berman continued. “And any one of them could’ve won districts. West Perry’s on a great roll. They’re playing well.”
Palmyra never led, after the Mustangs notched the first five points of the contest. The Cougars broke the ice with 3:16 remaining, on a foul shot from Josie Stovall.
Then 40 seconds into the second period, Palmyra trimmed West Perry’s lead to 9-6 on a pair of free throws by Kristen Smoluk. Two minutes later, a driving lay-in from Smoluk made it an 11-8 game.
“I thought they out hustled us,” said Berman of the Mustangs. “They beat us to loose balls. They’re big. They’re strong. But it’s all on us. What upsets me is that when we get to districts, they (officials) let them (foul calls) go. It seems to be the mindset, to change what they were calling in the regular season.
“We’re built on driving to the basket and getting rewarded for that,” Berman continued. “They (the officials) were consistent. But the whole nature of the game changes in districts. These guys did a great job. It’s the concept. That, to me, gives an advantage to one team over the another.”
The Cougars forced 24 West Perry turnovers, and for a time they kept them in the game. But Palmyra was out rebounded by a wide 40-25 margin.
Smoluk’s nine points represented the Cougars’ team-high. Richardson did not score.
“If we would win and stay alive, I’d probably shut her down for the fifth-place game,” said Berman of Richardson. “I feel so sorry for her personally.”
After West Perry took a 16-10 advantage to the locker room, Palmyra got one step closer thanks to a foul shot from Katy McClellan 16 seconds into the third quarter. But the Cougars suffered through a 5:08 scoreless stretch, as the Mustangs were building their margin to 22-13.
West Perry’s lead grew to 38-21 in the middle of the fourth quarter.
“In my opinion, this team has overachieved, with all the adversity we’ve had all year,” said Berman. “Getting to the elite eight of districts, we’re very pleased. We’ve overcome a lot to become a good team. It’s disappointing, with our shooting performance. And it’s disappointing for our fans.”