BY JEFF FALK
HERSHEY – It was an absolutely horrible way to end a game. And an even worse way to end a season.
On Saturday afternoon at Hershey High School, a wonderful campaign by the Palmyra girls’ basketball team was doomed by a sputtering offense and a frustrating dry spell. Palmyra failed to score in the final 5:24 of its opening round game in the PIAA Class AAA tournament and the Cougars fell to Bethlehem Catholic 50-38.
The Hawks tallied the final 12 points of the contest, after the Cougars’ Kaitlyn Carmo tied the game at 38, 2:36 into the final stanza. The Hawks took the lead for good two minutes later and then milked the clock with a deliberate offensive approach.
Down 44-38 with 1:28 left, the Cougars were still in it. But as their frustration grew, so did their impatience and Bethlehem Catholic netted six points in the final 33 ticks to pull away.
The loss ended Mid-Penn Keystone Division champion Palmyra’s season at 23-4. For Palmyra, the third-place finisher out of District Three, the state palyoff appearance was its eighth in the last ten years, but only once have the Cougars advanced past the first round.
Bethlehem Catholic, the second-place finisher out of District 11, will carry a 24-3 mark into the second round of states.
“Obviously it’s disappointing,” said Palmyra head coach Ron Berman, “because we had a chance today. It is disappointing at the moment. But we’ve got to regroup and realize what we accomplished.”
The Hawks may have set the stage for the Cougars’ collapse late in the third period, by notching two baskets in the final nine seconds. That erased the 34-30 lead senior Chelsea Ebersole had given Palmyra 24 seconds earlier.
“They just captured the momentum,” said Berman. “They ran off those four points at the end of the third quarter. That was the momentum changer. They got all excited and came out hard in the fourth. And our lack of a point guard shows at that point.
“People who have seen us enough know we do things by committee, more than have one single player,” Berman continued. “Teams that can exploit those weaknesses are going to have success against us. They’re (the Hawks) quicker at guard, and their big (Kalista Walters) was better.”
In the end, Palmyra just couldn’t figure out Bethlehem Catholic’s active 2-3 zone. The defense swarmed all over the Cougars’ inside game and limited Palmyra shooters’ looks at three-point shots.
Palmyra sophomore forward Maddie Good tallied all but two of her team-high 12 points in the first half, while Carmo was effective off the bench and contributed ten. Ebersole, the only senior in Palmyra’s top eight players, made both of her team’s three-point baskets and recorded eight points in the final game of her career.
“They didn’t do anything that surprised us,” said Berman. “We knew they were more athletic. But we didn’t do the things we have to do to be effective. We were not aggressive as we needed to be.
“We had kids besides Chelsea who were reluctant to shoot the ball,” added Berman. “We needed someone to step up.”
The Cougars were forced to work hard for every point they got, and in the first half that translated into offensive rebounds. Palmyra led 4-0 on a conventional three-point play from M. Good and 11-5 on a putback from Carmo with 2:33 of the opening stanza remaining.
The Cougars enjoyed a 17-12 margin midway through the second quarter thanks to an inside move by M. Good. But Bethlehem Catholic scored six of the first eight points of the second half to grab a 24-23 edge.
“The physical play wasn’t to our advantage,” said Berman, “because we’re not going to match up with them physically. It’s the state tournament. Officials are going to let players decide the game.
“Forget the end,” Berman added. “Up until the fourth quarter, we played well defensively. We played good defense until they (the Hawks) started separating.”
Despite the fact that a seasoned point guard looms nowhere on the horizon, the Cougars future appears to be bright.
“We’ve got a lot to learn,” said Berman. “I sure hope that this was a learning experience. More than that I hope this will motivate some people to work a little harder in the off-season. We have a lot of two-sport athletes and some of them will start their spring sports on Monday. It’s a long way to next year.”