BY JEFF FALK
ALTOONA – Play hard. Play smart. Play together. And have fun.
Notice no mention is made of wins, losses, championships, adversity or expectations in the Lady Cougar Basketball program’s mission statement. That’s because if one takes care of the former, the latter doesn’t really matter, and things will turn out the way they were meant to.
On Tuesday night at Altoona Area High School, a better team ended one of the most successful state playoff runs in Palmyra girls’ basketball history. Blackhawk, the champions of District Seven, were more physical, better schooled and more balanced in a 49-41, PIAA Class AAA semifinal win over the Cougars.
Blackhawk asserted itself in the second quarter while opening a 30-21 halftime lead, weathered a couple of mild Palmyra uprisings in the second half, and then put the result to rest with its version of a spread offense over the contest’s final three minutes – despite some shaky foul shooting. While the effort was there for short-handed Palmyra, the Cougars experienced difficulties guarding the dribble, boxing out on the defensive end and converting must-make lay-ups.
Though it won no titles along the way, Palmyra’s appearance in the Class AAA Final Four was its first in 30 seasons. The loss ended the Cougars’ five-game postseason winning streak, as well as their season at 25-5.
Blackhawk, the WPIAL champions, bolted to 27-2 and into Saturday’s PIAA Class AAA championship game at Hershey’s Giant Center. It will take on District 12 champ Archbishop Wood, a 74-56 victor over Holy Redeemer.
“When you get to this point, you want to win another one,” said Palmyra head coach Ron Berman. “But I’ll take losing in the state Final Four every year. We had five great wins. This team has just grown and gotten better.
“In actual statistics, this was our third best record (in Berman’s 14 years on the bench),” he continued. “But this team finished better than any I’ve ever had. This team went from a ‘six’ to a ‘nine’. In terms of growth, I’m not sure I’ve had any better, and that’s been especially true over the last month.”
When Cougar reserve Kailey Werkhiser nailed her fourth trey of the game, 1:10 into the final period, Palmyra was right there with mighty Blackhawk, down only 38-35. Then on two subsequent possessions, Palmyra pulled to within 40-37 on a Maria Tukis lay-up and 42-39 on a Carly Richardson drive.
But over the final 5:31, all the Cougars could muster was a bucket from Molly Gundermann. Blackhawk did its part by missing six of seven, but Palmyra couldn’t hold up its end of the upset bargain.
“I couldn’t be any happier, besides not winning the game,” said Berman. “We got down, but we fought back and stayed in it. It tells you what type of character we have. But as a coach, you can feel it slipping away.
“My hat’s off to them (Blackhawk),” continued Berman. “They’re well-coached. They ran some great sets. Without Kristen (injured Smoluk), we didn’t quite have enough guns. I’m not saying we would’ve won, but it would’ve been a different outcome.”
The Cougars fell behind by as many as 13 points early in the second half, before holding Blackhawk to two points during a 5:17 stretch in which they clawed to within 36-32, on Werkhiser three-pointer. Richardson, Tukis and Katy McClellan all nailed pairs of free throws in the span, while junior point Katie Dembrowski contributed a steal and lay-in.
“I told my coaching staff, ‘if we can hold them under 50 points, we have a chance,'” said Berman. “But without Kristen (Smoluk), we didn’t have a lot of weapons.
“They (Blackhawk) run a dribble-drive offense,” Berman added. “It’s a great offense. They’ve got three guards who can handle it and they can all shoot. Throw in two ‘bigs’ who can clean up and it makes it tough. We tried to jump-switch it, but again, giving up 49 points, I’ll take it. It’s just a really a nice team.”
With Smoluk, who was injured in Saturday’s win over Elizabeth Forward, looking on from the bench, Palmyra was led in scoring by Richardson, who pumped in 13 points during the final game of her prolific career. Werkhiser’s 12-point contribution was huge, but the Cougars managed just eight two-point baskets.
“We talked about someone having to make some plays,” said Berman of Werkhiser. “She’s a very good shooter. She’s made ‘threes’ for us throughout the year. It wasn’t surprising, but I didn’t expect her to make four on this big stage. I’m really happy for her.
“They (Blackhawk) called a timeout with three minutes to go and up three or four points, and they brought some fresh people in,” added Berman. “We played too many kids too many minutes. We’re just not that deep.”
Off the bus first, Blackhawk raced out to an early 10-4 lead. But behind Richardson and Werkhiser, the Cougars found their stride late in the opening stanza.
Werkhiser’s buzzer-beating trey from the left corner forged a 12-all draw though eight minutes of play, and when Richardson nailed a three-ball 21 seconds into the second quarter, the Cougars had a 15-12 advantage. But that would prove to be Palmyra’s last lead of the year.
“She’s really good,” said Berman of Blackhawk junior guard Chassidy Omogrosso. “We’re not chopped liver. Tukis is the best defender on the ball I’ve ever had. I know Carly (Richardson) tried to make some big plays for us, but she’s only 80 percent (healthy). She just couldn’t explode.
“They have great guards,” Berman added. “And with their physicality, they beat us up inside. We gave up two or three inches per player, and we’re talking some pretty developed (Blackhawk) juniors. And when you have a point guard that’s that good, she can create opportunities.”
The Cougars didn’t score over the final 3:30 of the first half, and during that time Blackhawk was forging a nine-point halftime cushion.
Over the past two years, Richardson, Dembrowski, McClellan, Tukis and Smoluk keyed Palmyra to a 54-6 overall mark.
“I’d like to think we’ve had more than back-to-back good seasons,” said Berman. “We had two exceptional seasons. We’re trying to mold athletes into basketball players. And we play good defense.
“These kids have so much class,” concluded Berman. “They’re state champions in track and cross country, and almost state champions in field hockey. They’re winning kids who come together to play basketball.”
Play hard. Play smart. Play together. And have fun.