HERSHEY – It wasn’t as much a long shot as it was the outside shots.
The Palmyra boys’ basketball team’s shot at a District Three Class AAA championship on Wednesday night at Hershey’s Giant Center wasn’t exactly an air ball. But it did clang off the iron and fall harmlessly to the floor.
The perimeter-oriented Cougars experienced shooting difficulties throughout their 59-42 loss to defending champion Berks Catholic, and that more than anything proved fatal. Palmyra made just three of 22 three-point field goal attempts, and was held to 28 fewer points than the 70 it had averaged in its three previous district-tournament wins.
The shooting woes slammed the brakes on what had been 12th-seeded Palmyra’s magical playoff run to the district final. The Cougars, now 18-8, will now endure an eight-day layoff before taking on the District 12 third-place finisher in the opening round of the PIAA Class AAA tournament on March 8, at a site to be announced.
The defending and reigning District Three Class AAA Saints, who were seeded third, are now 26-3 overall.
“It was a struggle,” said Palmyra head coach Pete Conrad. “Obviously we hoped to make some shots. But they (the Saints) do a great job of using their size and length to get into shooters.
“If we could’ve gotten that one big shot or that one big play,” Conrad continued, but they (the Saints) did a great job of stymying us offensively. Our kids had a phenomenal run. Actually, I think we’re a pretty good offensive team.”
“It was a little bit of both,” said Cougar senior catalyst Logan Stovall. “We could not hit an outside shot all game. We hit three threes and that was very uncharacteristic. We usually make seven or eight. We needed to hit our outside shots, and we just couldn’t.”
On the strength of its defense and scrappy play, the Cougars were still hanging around – down 36-31 on thanks to a trey from reserve Adam Graybill – late in the third quarter. But Palmyra went without a score of any kind for the opening 4:25 of the final stanza, as Berks Catholic opened a 14-point bulge.
That was pretty much it.
“Some people were under-estimating Berks Catholic, but not us,” said Conrad. “That’s how they play. They grind and they pound you in half-court. And they’re an outstanding, outstanding defensive team.
“They (the Saints) just play a good, hard-nosed man-to-man defense,” added Conrad. “They were well-prepared. We got very few easy ones. Obviously they (the Saints) got some, but I didn’t think they killed us on the glass. But when you have five kids going to the glass, it’s hard to get out in transition.”
“They are a good team,” said Stovall of the Saints. “They have several kids who can shoot, and a lot of guys who can drive. Defensively, we played about up to par. Most teams we beat are in the 50s and 60s. We just couldn’t get the offense to fall back on.”
The beginning of Palmyra’s downfall may have come in the middle of the third quarter, when it was whistled first for an intentional foul, and then for a technical foul.
After Stovall had tallied five points early in the third quarter to pull Palmyra to within 24-23, the Cougar intentional foul gave Berks Catholic a little breathing room and a spark. And the technical four minutes later gave the Saints four free throws, the ball and a 36-28 advantage.
“They play hard. They play physical,” said Conrad. “But we lost our composure a little bit. Both were legitimate calls. We’re going to have to learn from that. But I’ve never had a team that has continued to improve like this one.
“They’re (the Saints) a tremendous team,” added Conrad. “They were the best team in this tournament, not even close. And the proof is in the pudding. We’ve got a lot of respect for Donegal, and they handled Donegal (in the district semifinal).”
“This run was a lot of fun,” said Stovall. “I love all these guys. We grew up together.”
With 16 points, Stovall was the only Cougar scorer to reach double figures. Normally prolific Adam Newhard and Trey Baker were limited to a combined eight points.
The Saints outscored the Cougars 24-8 at the charity stripe.
“We thought we had this kind of team,” said Conrad. “You see some of this stuff. If you’re tied for third in the Keystone Division (of the Mid-Penn Conference) during the regular season, you feel like you can make a run in districts.”
“There’s always room for improvement,” said Stovall. “But this game was winnable. It slipped through our fingers, and we couldn’t make an outside shot.”
A Trey Baker trey 4:37 in gave Palmyra an 8-7 edge, but Berks Catholic responded with a 6-1 run, and then notched the first two baskets of the second stanza to assume a 17-9 lead. The Cougars stayed close with a four-point possession – Brad Mackey converted a Stovall missed free throw into a three-point play – and with a Shawn Robinson steal and lay-in that pulled Palmyra to within 22-18 at the break.
“I think they became a very good basketball team, but I don’t know if they became the best they could be,” said Conrad of his charges. “I’m a Duke fan and Mike Krzyzewski says you don’t put a plant into a pot because you don’t want to constrict it. I don’t want to put them (his players) into a pot because I don’t want to constrict them.
“I think he’s a great coach,” said Stovall of Conrad. “From where our program used to be, and to transfer it into something like this, is amazing.”