HERSHEY – Last night, for the first time this season, when the Palmyra girls’ basketball team stepped on to the court it wasn’t absolutely, positively sure it was the better team. But the Cougars cycled that itty-bitty smidgen of doubt into just a little extra desire.
Attacking in unrelenting waves on both sides of the ball, unbeaten Palmyra wore down and wore out a tough Cumberland Valley outfit 60-56 to win the Mid-Penn Conference championship at Milton Hershey school on Thursday. In a game where each and every possession was meaningful, the Cougars’ balance, depth and athleticism won out in the end.
The Cougars led from late in the from third quarter on, but never by more than a couple of possessions. Palmyra tallied its final seven points from the free throw line, including two from Kate Carmo with 1:02 left that gave it a 56-53 edge, two by Carly Richardson with 44 ticks to go that gave it a 58-53 margin and one more from Carmo with 25 seconds left that made it a 59-55 score.
The type of clutch free throwing that wins championships.
For Palmyra, now 24-0, the Mid-Penn title was its first in program history, and was a nice topping to the Keystone Division championship it won earlier this season. Cumberland Valley, the Commonwealth Division titlist, slipped to 19-5 overall.
“If you were making an honest evaluation, if both teams were going to play the best they can, I thought we were going to lose a close game,” said Palmyra head coach Ron Berman. “There’s a reason they’re (the Eagles) a four-A school. They played a tougher schedule than us and we played the second toughest Class AAA schedule in the district. We knew it was going to be difficult.
“When we were 21-0, we hadn’t won anything yet,” continued Berman. “I was worried about stumbling and not having anything. It was more about enjoying the experience, but the thing for the girls is that they have a medal and a championship. I’m like, ‘Wow. We did it.'”
“Every time we step onto the floor, we’re never going to be over-confident,” said junior Carly Richardson, who paced the Cougars with 18 points. “We never take any team lightly. When the game begins, it’s 0-0. We were focused. We always are. They (the Eagles) have a strong team.
“Obviously coming from the Commonwealth, they (the Eagles) play great competition,” Richardson continued. “Some people questioned if we could rebound withe them. So our focus was on rebounding, and we did a good job with that. We made a weakness a strength.”
Though there was very little margin for error, things began to turn Palmyra’s way in the middle of the third quarter. Trailing 40-37, the Cougars shut down the Eagles for a four-minute span, and then Palmyra netted four points in the period’s final four seconds, courtesy of a Maria Tukis drive, a steal and a stick-back from Katy McClellan.
The Cougars carried a 44-42 lead and the momentum into the fourth, and opened a 49-45 margin on a drive from Katie Dembrowski, with 4:39 to go. Another hard ‘take’ to the hole by Carmo two minutes later gave the Cougars a 53-50 lead.
“I’m exhausted,” said Berman. “But I think I’ll be OK. I think the bus trip home should be fun. We’ve got to stay focused to keep our season going. When the final game comes, it’s going to break our hearts.
“This week has been great,” added Berman. “But they (his players) expended so much energy. What concerns me is that Gettysburg won this title last year, and got knocked out of districts in the second round. That would be a concern. But I trust these kids.”
“It was definitely an outstanding performance,” said Richardson. “Cumberland Valley is a quality team. I thought we definitely made some improvements. We’re going to learn from this experience.
“My teammates did a great job of getting open and screening for me,” Richardson added. “We had some great court vision. We just played as a team.”
Complementing Richardson in the scoring column were seven different teammates, one of whom was Maria Tukis, who tallied ten points. Palmyra’s athleticism was manifested in it being on the right side of an 18-7 foul discrepancy, and that translated into a 13-1 advantage in made free throws.
“Carly stepped up,” said Berman. “Carly is one of the most unselfish star players I’ve ever been associated with. She’s content to not shoot the ball. She’s a complete player. She’s a team player.”
“Given the fact that our team is relatively young, we did a great job,” said Richardson. “We were focused coming into the game. We are all so blessed to have a coach like Coach Berman. We’re so lucky to be around people who care so much about us. It’s unbelievable.
“Not many girls are going to be able to tell their kids that they played in front of this many people and won a title,” Richardson added. “It was an awesome game. Our team just happened to make a couple more baskets than the other team.”
After the opening eight minutes ended in a 13-13 draw, Cumberland Valley established a 24-23 edge with a three-pointer late in the second quarter. But Palmyra notched the final seven points of the first half – on two huge treys from Richardson and a foul shot by Tukis – to take a 30-24 advantage to the locker room.
“I thought we were in good shape at halftime,” said Berman. “Steel-High (which Palmyra beat on Tuesday) was a different type of team than this team. It was a matter of could we rebound with them, could we stay with them on the glass.
“This was not one of our goals, for the most part,” Berman continued. “Until this week. When you look at the big picture, it was the first time a Keystone (division) team won it, and that makes it special. But it wasn’t one of our goals.”
“It’s amazing to get this medal and to be able to wear it around my neck,” said Richardson. “Whenever you get a championship, the most important part is enjoying them all, not ranking them and never being satisfied.”
As the number-one seed, he Cougars will open the District Three Class AAA tournament on Tuesday, at home, against the winner of the Boiling Springs-East Pennsboro play-in game.