BY JEFF FALK
HERSHEY – Just when you wondered what this group might do for an encore, just when you thought you had seen it all from them, they went to a place that only they thought they could go. What was ironic was that this group of some of the most successful female student-athletes in the history of Lebanon County scholastic sports did it in a loss.
On Friday night at Giant Center, the Palmyra girls’ basketball played as well as it ever had in defeat, during the championship game of the District Three Class AAAA tournament. As it turned out, the only thing standing between the heavy underdog Cougars and an improbable district championship was a Division One talent who goes by the name of Kelly Jekot.
Certainly no easy task, Jekot ripped the collective heart from the gutsy Cougars by following up a miss of her own initial shot with two seconds left, giving Cumberland Valley a dramatic 26-25 victory over Palmyra in a whale of a defensive championship scrap. With Palmyra defensive whiz Maria Tukis shadowing her the whole way, Jekot, a junior guard headed to Villanova, went hard to the basket with her left hand, and when her first attempt popped out, she was there to instantly stick it back.
Palmyra did get off a desperation attempt at the buzzer, out of an inbound play and a timeout, but Kristen Smoluk’s long heave from the left wing was well short. The Cougars had taken a 25-24 edge with 41 seconds remaining, on two pressure-packed free throws from Smoluk.
The result was in stark contrast to the 70-54 beating Cumberland Valley had put on the Cougars two weeks ago in the Mid-Penn Conference title tilt. That night, Palmyra surrendered a season-high point total. Last night, the Cougars came within a point of yielding a season-low.
Top-seeded Palmyra, the champions of the Keystone Division of the Mid-Penn Conference and now 24-4, will represent District Three as its runner-up in next week’s PIAA Class AAAA postseason, which begins Friday night, against the sixth-place finisher from District One. Second-seeded Cumberland Valley is now 27-1, the reigning Mid-Penn Commonwealth Division champion, the defending Class AAAA state champ and nationally ranked.
“I’m proud of how we put ourselves in that position,” said Palmyra head coach Ron Berman. “I’m not sure we could’ve played much better. We had to play slow-down to stay with it. I’d be happy to come down to one possession with Cumberland Valley. We made a big play, and then they made a big play to top us.
“I think it was an example of how we can play when we’re focused,” Berman continued. “They’re high school girls. We made a couple of poor decisions, but they’re trying like crazy.”
Palmyra’s Josie Stovall’s lay-in with the six seconds left in the third quarter knotted the score at 19, and when teammate Katy McClellan turned a baseline drive into a three-point play 23 seconds into the final stanza, the Cougars had themselves a 22-19 lead. McClellan added a free throw 1:51 later to push Palmyra’s advantage to four.
But with each side delivering deliberate possessions, the Cougars went without a score over the next 5:05, and K. Jekot netted all seven of the Eagles’ fourth-quarter points. Despite an outstanding man-to-man defensive effort from Tukis, K. Jekot finished with a game-high 15 points.
“That’s a big player making a big play in a big game,” said Berman of K. Jekot’s game-winner. “She missed a lay-up, but she was up again before we ever reacted. She’s so athletic, so gifted.
“We had to put Maria Tukis on her, giving up six or seven inches,” Berman added. “And she was the only one who could run with her. We came back in the second half, and took the lead there.”
Facing a six-point halftime deficit, Palmyra wasted little time going to work in the third quarter. Palmyra shut out the Eagles for the initial five minutes of the half, while Smoluk was canning two free throws, Molly Gunderman was scoring on a lay-up and Smoluk was stroking a three-pointer which gave the Cougars a 17-16 edge.
“We’re second and there’s 40 teams in quad-A who’d like to be second,” said Berman. “We played great and put on a great show for our fans and community. Sure you want to win. Winning is a lot more fun. We just battled the state champions to the last possession. We have a lot to be proud of.
“We jumped up from Class AAA, and we finished in fifth place (in districts) last season,” continued Berman. “We got to the district final and almost knocked off the state champ. We’re still not offensively skilled. Tonight was a perfect example of competing with some really good athletes.”
On the strength of a drive by McClellan, Smoluk’s stop-and-pop and Tukis’ three-pointer, the Cougars opened an early 7-2 margin. Cumberland Valley did not score against the Cougar man-to-man until 3:20 of the opening quarter had elapsed.
“We made a bunch of adjustments,” said Berman of the last time the two teams met. “The last game we said we were going to do what we did all the time. This game we didn’t. We wanted to stop them from getting into an offensive flow. But you’ve got to give up something.
“I hate this pace, but not in this game,” Berman continued. “We had to take a chance of slowing things down. Every game we talk about having more possessions than the other team. Tonight we wanted to have less.”
The Eagles outscored the Cougars 12-3 during the second period, to take a 16-10 cushion to the break. Palmyra’s only points in the stanza came from Stovall at the foul stripe.
“We made up seven possessions (on Cumberland Valley from the last time they played). If we make up eight, we might have won,” said Berman. “That’s how we looked at the game. We played pretty well. We did everything we tried to do.
“Our preparation started with getting the right people on the right people,” Berman added. “We had to figure out what we had to do to stop them. Basically we wanted to stop their running game.”
Cumberland Valley (26)
Palmyra 2014-15 Results
|5:30 PM||W 68-38|
|7:00 PM||W 64-26|
|7:30 PM||W 44-39|
|7:30 PM||W 52-43|
|7:30 PM||W 52-41|
|7:30 PM||W 43-27|
|7:30 PM||W 66-37|
|7:30 PM||W 64-40|
|2:00 PM||W 53-38|
|6:00 PM||W 45-39|
|7:30 PM||W 68-35|
|7:30 PM||W 48-35|
|12:30 PM||W 52-35|
|7:30 PM||L 26-29|
|7:30 PM||W 64-59|
|12:30 PM||W 66-32|
|7:30 PM||W 44-37|
|7:30 PM||W 59-38|
|7:30 PM||W 66-33|
|7:30 PM||L 61-65|
|7:30 PM||W 59-25|
|7:30 PM||W 42-29|
|6:00 PM||W 49-35|
|6:00 PM||L 54-70|
|02/17 * #||
|7:00 PM||W 61-39|
|8:00 PM||W 54-27|
|5:00 PM||W 48-42|
|8:30 PM||L 25-26|