BY JEFF FALK
PALMYRA – It was exactly two weeks since the Palmyra girls’ basketball team had played its last game. And apparently, the Cougars made good use of that time.
Want to know a little secret about head coach Ron Berman? He likes practices more than games!
On Wednesday night at home, the Cougars looked very much like a club that had just spent two weeks in a gymnasium with Berman. Palmyra appeared rejuvenated, refocused and overall sharper, while taking out Hamburg, 53-33, in an opening-round game of the District Three Class AAA playoffs.
With senior star and leader Carly Richardson relegated to ‘the pines’ by an ankle injury sustained in that practice, the Cougars stepped up collectively, shot the ball well and moved ‘the rock’ much more crisply. It took about two quarters for those practice lessons to kick in, but once they did, Hamburg simply couldn’t ‘catch-up’.
The triumph propelled second-seeded Palmyra to 20-3 overall and into Saturday’s quarterfinal round of the tournament, opposite tenth-seeded West Perry, which shaded Middletown. That contest is slated for 1:30 p.m. at Milton Hershey School.
Last night’s victory also assured the Cougars of at least two more games this season, and because District Three sends six Class AAA representatives on to the PIAA postseason, Palmyra would need to win one of those to qualify for that particular tournament. As for 15th-seeded Hamburg, it concluded its campaign at 15-9.
“I don’t think it went anywhere,” said Berman when asked if his club was back to playing ‘Lady Cougar Basketball’. “We laid an egg against Hershey (in its regular-season finale). It felt so good over the weekend. We got better the last two weeks. I thought we were fresh. We were executing.
“I am extremely excited and pleased with the way we played,” Berman continued. “This team has been faced with adversity from spring till now. I’m so happy for them to get this win. We were 19-3 and some people thought we didn’t have a good year. But I think we’ve had a great year. They’ve (his players) become used to facing adversity this season.”
Following some uneven play in the first half, the Cougars really took control early in the third quarter.
Protecting a 24-22 edge, the Cougars’ man-to-man and full court defenses held the Hawks scoreless for a stretch of four minutes-plus, and allowed Palmyra to rattle off 11 unanswered and extend their lead to 35-22. Junior Kristen Smoluk collected five of those Cougar points, while sophomore Josie Stovall had four.
“Absolutely there was a sense of urgency,” said Berman of the finality surrounding the affair. “We talked that and it showed. It was good match-ups for us, besides the big girl. We were able to pressure the ball and get them (the Hawks) out of their offensive sets.
“I didn’t say anything special at halftime,” Berman continued. “It was nothing in a bottle. I just said, ‘We’re right there. Now go bring it home.'”
Hamburg never did manage to get its deficit into the single digits, as Palmyra notched the first five points of the fourth period to push its advantage to 45-28. Soph Molly Gundermann nailed her third trey of the contest, before Katy McClellan nailed a couple of charity tosses.
“When she doesn’t force it, she’s very capable of shooting the ball,” said Berman of Gundermann. “We felt we had to be aggressive. We talked about driving to the basket at the right angles. Sometimes the ball just bounces in the right direction.”
In Richardson’s absence, Gundermann led the team in scoring with 13 points. Meanwhile, the other members of the Cougars’ top seven – Maria Tukis, Katie Dembrowski, Smoluk, Stovall and McClellan – all scored between six and nine points.
Thanks to the Hawks’ two-for-11 free throwing, the Cougars outscored them by ten points at the line.
“I know everyone has great respect for Carly,” said Berman. “No one wanted us having Carly sitting on the bench and watching her last game. But at no point did we do the ‘Win one for Carly’ routine.
“It was more of ‘we’ve got to replace ten or eleven points and ten or eleven rebounds,'” Berman added. “We felt with Katie Dembrowski combining with Maria Tukis and combining with Kristen Smoluk and combining with Katy McClellan, and then throwing in Josie Stovall and Molly Gundermann, we could control the ball in the fourth quarter. Nothing against Carly, but we became more athletic. My concern was where the points were going to come from.”
After trailing 10-9 through eight minutes of action, Gundermann connected on a three-ball and Stovall knocked down a turnaround in the first 38 seconds of the second stanza to give Palmyra a 14-10 margin. A stick back from McClellan midway through the quarter resulted in a 22-14 Cougar advantage.
But Palmyra managed just a Tukis foul shot over the rest of the half, and Hamburg closed to within 23-20 by the break.