BY JEFF FALK
ALTOONA – All basketball teams can really ask for at the beginning of seasons is to win some games, document personal growth, have individuals learn their roles, come together as a unit, experience enough improvement – and maybe extend the year. For the Palmyra girls, 2017-18 was a success on all of those fronts.
On Wednesday night at Altoona Area High School, the Cougars’ mostly successful campaign reached a head, with a 46-34 loss to Oakland Catholic, in the second round of the PIAA Class AAAAA postseason. Although it never raised the white flag, Palmyra was doomed by a 13-minute score-less stretch that produced a double-digit deficit.
There were plenty of highlights for a Cougar club, which returns almost everyone next year and went 16-12 this season. After finishing seventh in the District Three tournament, the Cougars defeated District Six champion Holidaysburg in Saturday’s opening round of the state tournament.
Oakland Catholic, the runner-up out of District Seven, extended its season to 19-7.
“Oh my gosh yes, it was a success,” said Palmyra head coach Mary Manlove. “Credit goes to these kids for being resilient, and not throwing the towel in. They fought all year.
“We have a lone senior (Hannah McLucas),” continued Manlove. “We have this entire group coming back. Last year, we lost a first-round district game by four points, and we learned from that. Hopefully we can use this as a step to get back to the state tournament. This team will come back experienced.”
The Cougars endured difficulties executing their offense, shooting and being patient with their shot selection. But early on they were OK.
Freshman Kaitlyn Becker helped Palmyra to early leads of 2-0 and 3-2. And when Olivia Richardson laid in a deuce near the middle of the opening period, the Cougars had a 5-4 edge.
“I’m very proud,” said Manlove. “I thought we played a little nervous and tight in the first half, and played with them in the second half. Just the resiliency we showed. When you play against size like that, it can happen.
“No, I don’t think it had anything to do with the bus ride,” added Manlove. “They (her players) traveled in style.”
When the Cougars’ struggles did come, they were mighty and extensive.
Palmyra failed to score for a stretch of 13:02, a span that began late in the first quarter, included the entire second quarter and spilled over into the third. If it hadn’t been for its defense, Palmyra would’ve trailed by more than 19-5.
“At halftime I told them ‘Relax and the shots are going to fall’,” said Manlove. “We’re a third-quarter team. We could’ve made it up.
“They (the Eagles) killed us on the boards,” Manlove continued. “They pounded it inside. The offensive rebounds hurt us.”
Juniors Amelia Baldo and Richardson paced Palmyra in scoring, with 14 and 12 points, respectively. The Cougars made just three of their eight foul shots and were outscored 43-25 inside the arc.
Palmyra shot a paltry 32 percent from the floor. The Eagles out rebounded the Cougars 34-23.
“I’ll take that in a heart beat,” said Manlove of the Cougars’ overall record and modest playoff run. “I’m thrilled. I think they’re (her players) very happy. Oakland Catholic is a very good basketball program. We made a game of it. We just didn’t make shots. You’ve got to score more to be in the hunt.”
The Cougars did show a little life in the third quarter.
A 6-2 spurt spurred by baskets from Richardson, Becker and Baldo brought them to within 19-11. Later in the third, a Richardson three-pointer pulled Palmyra to within 27-19 of the lead.
“We were happy to get further in the playoffs than we did last year,” said Manlove. “This was growth. We exceeded our expectations. We were 16-11 coming in and we had our fair share of lumps.”
Palmyra opened the final period with a jumper from Richardson, to move to within 29-21 of Oakland Catholic. But the Eagles tallied the next six points, to jack their lead back to 35-21.
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