BY JEFF FALK
HERSHEY – All season long the Palmyra girls’ basketball team has been a knight in shining armor. Turns out, the Cougars’ armor contains just a few chinks.
The intense scrutiny of the playoffs can have that kind of exposing effect.
On Wednesday afternoon at Hershey’s Giant Center, Lancaster Catholic exposed perhaps the Cougars’ most glaring weakness, during a 61-57 victory in the semifinals of the District Three Class AAA playoffs. The Crusaders again and again exploited Palmyra’s lack of a true point guard, both offensively and defensively.
Palmyra simply had no answers for Lancaster Catholic’s junior point guard Porsha Speller, who burned it for 27 points. And without a pure ballhandler, the Cougars at times struggled with the Crusaders’ unrelenting and unforgiving fullcourt pressure.
The loss dropped top-seeded Palmyra to 22-4 and into Friday night’s consolation game in the tournament. The Cougars, champions of the Mid-Penn Conference’s Keystone Division, had already qualified for the upcoming PIAA Class AAA postseason.
Fifth-seeded Lancaster Catholic, champions of the Lancaster-Lebanon League and now 25-3, bolted into Saturday morning’s District title game.
“Yeah, I think the better team won,” said Palmyra head coach Ron Berman. “But it’s usually the team that plays the best that wins. That’s why you play the game. I have no doubt that they were the better team because they have more parts. But we put ourselves in position to win.
“What scared me about Lancaster Catholic is that they have a great point guard (Speller),” Berman added. “And I knew we have trouble with great point guards.”
Lancaster Catholic, which shot a torrid 67 percent from the field in the second half, broke open a two-point game with a decisive 11-2 burst early in the final quarter. The Crusaders led 51-40 with five minutes to go, and 57-49 with under two to play.
A pair of Chelesea Ebersole three-point bombs in a matter of nine seconds drew the Cougars to within 57-55. But all Palmyra could muster over the final 1:15 was a couple of charity tosses from Kristen Smoluk.
“They made plays,” said Berman of the Crusaders in crunch time. “We missed a couple of shots. And we got antsy with the ball. We lost control of the ball in the fourth quarter. But we fought back and put ourselves in a position to win.
“Chelsea hit two threes, like we know she can,” added Berman. “I would’ve been very disappointed if this group of players didn’t come back.”
Lancaster Catholic scored the first three baskets of the second half to erase the Cougars’ five-point cushion. What prove to be Palmyra’s last lead – 37-36 – came with 1:07 left in the third stanza, on a drive though the lane by Ebersole.
“Lancaster Catholic is averaging 64 points a game,” said Berman. “They scored 61, so we did OK defensively. I don’t think it was our greatest game defensively. We never did a great job containing Speller. But it wasn’t due to a lack of effort.”
Speller did not make a shot outside of three feet all game.
“We wanted to control her (Speller),” said Berman, “force her to take outside shots. But she got inside too many times and we didn’t help enough. And when we did help, she found someone else.”
Despite leaving some points on the floor, Palmyra appeared to be the better club in the first half, one that ended 25-20 in favor of the Cougars. With Ebersole and Maddie Good each scoring three points, Palmyra ended the second quarter on an 8-2 spurt.
“You come into the game obviously wanting to win,” said Berman. “Yeah, I’m disappointed. Disappointed because you don’t get many opportunities to get here, and win here. Lancaster Catholic is a very good basketball team.”
Palmyra seemed unphased by the Crusaders’ 10-1 opening act. The Cougars notched the last six points of the initial period, and when M. Good cut hard to the bucket, Palmyra was within 12-11.
Palmyra’s first lead came courtesy of a steal and lay-in from Ebersole, with 5:21 to go in the second period.
“It’s so neat playing here,” said Berman. “It’s a great experience. And I told the girls, ‘Just because you got here this year doesn’t mean you’re going to come back again.'”
Ebersole, the only senior among Palmyra’s top eight, finished with 17 points, as did M. Good. Teammate Carly Richardson recorded 12 points and hauled down 11 boards.
Palmyra out rebounded Lancaster Catholic 34-26 and outscored it 16-7 at the foul line.