Undefeated Palmyra, the No. 1 ranked team in District Three Class AAA, against the two-time defending PIAAClass A champion Rollers of Steel-High and high-scoring All-American Malia Tate-DeFreitas.
Could the balanced Cougars come up with enough offense to offset the individual brilliance of Tate-DeFreitas, who has averaged roughly 30 points a game during her four-year career while scoring more than 3,000 points?
The Cougars answered the question with an emphatic yes.
Tate-DeFreitas got her 33, but four Cougars rose above their season averages to post a 75-62 win Tuesday night at Central Dauphin High. With the win, Palmyra moved to 23-0 and advanced to the Mid-Penn Conference championship game, to be played Thursday at 6 p.m. at Milton Hershey.
The Cougars, who lost to Gettysburg last year in the tournament semifinals, will face Mid-Penn Commonwealth champ Cumberland Valley, a 52-40 winner over Gettysburg in Tuesday's other semifinal of the four-team event.
The prospects of playing for their first Mid-Penn championship motivated them to come up with what amounted to their best game of the year. Carly Richardson led the way with 18 points and 16 rebounds, sophomore Kristen Smoluk scored a career-high 17 and Maria Tukis and Kait Carmo had 14 and 13, respectively. After falling behind early, 13-2, the Cougars dug a deeper hole than most would have liked, but their ability to play strong defense and hit shots when they needed them most carried them in the end.
"When we were down, 13-2, yes, of course, I was worried," said veteran skipper Ron Berman, whose club escaped with a 43-42 win in its most recent game last week at Hershey. "I was very concerned, but we didn't panic. We played them the first game last year, and even though we lost, we hung with them until the end.
"This team is improved over last year's. So even though we fell behind, we had missed something like four layups and our 3-point shots weren't falling. Once we started making some shots, things fell into place."
Richardson was the first to find her stroke. Her first of three treys fell with 2:51 left in the first quarter, cutting the Rollers' lead to 13-5. Tukis then went to work with six points and Steel-High's lead by the end of the first period was down to 15-14.
Smoluk, who drew two first-period fouls while trying to defend Tate-DeFreitas, came to life in the second quarter with nine points. Richardson added seven as Palmyra methodically opened a 36-25 lead.
"Kristen and Maria Tukis were two of the girls we needed to step up this game and they really came through," Berman said. "Most teams look to stop Carly and Kait Carmo, first, which creates opportunities for others."
Smoluk, who has had a string of double-figure games since starting to shoot more, said she was felt good from the start.
"I had a couple of early calls go against me, but my shot was feeling good," the 5-foot-10 sophomore said. "I started to look for openings. They weren't playing me all that close, and my teammates got me the ball for some open shots."
Jazmine Blanding hit two early '3s' for Steel-High to open the second half, and Tate-DeFreitas started going to the hoop with a vengeance. Steel-High took a 41-40 lead with 3:33 left in the third period as the Hampdon-bound star scored 10 in the quarter.
"I can honestly say Malia is the best player I've seen," Berman said. "Alyssa Thomas is a great player, but she's 6-1. Malia's not that big, but she made shot after shot against us with two of three players on her. Her body control and ability to get her shot off under pressure is unbelievable."
But, Carmo found her best stride late in the third with eight points that catapulted Palmyra back in front, 47-37.
"It was a streaky game," said Berman. "They'd make a run, then we'd make a run. But the run we made for the final eight points of the third quarter to open a 10-point lead was probably the biggest run of the game."
Steel-High would again close to within 68-62 with 2:14 left as Tate-DeFreitas added another 10 in the quarter, but two huge 3-pointers by Smoluk and one by Richardson were enough to keep the Rollers at bay.
In the final minutes when Steel-High was forced to foul, Dembrowski, Tukis and Carmo all missed free throws that could have cinched the win, but dogged team rebounding and tenacious defending wore the Rollers down.
"We wanted an up tempo game," Berman said. "We pressured Tate-DeFreitas with two people, usually Gabi Gundermann and Tukis early, then moved bigger girls on her when she got to the lane. We hoped the pressure would wear them down."
In the end, despite missing 10 of 20 free throws, the Cougars enjoyed a 47-37 edge in rebounding, with Richardson accounting for 10 offensive boards.
MID-PENN CONFERENCE PLAYOFFS
AT CENTRAL DAUPHIN
PALMYRA 75, STEEL-HIGH 62
Tate-DeFreitas 15 2-3 33, Blanding 5 1-1 14, Hess-Moore 2 0-0 5, Lozada 0 0-0 0, Robinson 1 0-0 2, Simmons 2 0-0 4, McNeil 0 0-0 0, Flowers 1 2-2 4. Totals 27 5-6 62.
Dembrowski 2 0-2 5, Tukis 5 4-7 14, Carmo 6 1-5 13, Smoluk 7 1-1 17, M. Gundermann 0 0-0 0, McClellan 2 1-2 5, G. Gundermann 1 0-0 3, Richardson 6 3-4 18. Totals 29 10-21 75. Totals 29 10-21 75.
Steel-High 15 10 22 15 - 62
Palmyra 14 22 21 18 - 75
3-point goals - Steel-High 5 (Blanding 3, Tate-DeFreitas, Hess-Moore), Palmyra 7 (Richardson 3, Smoluk 2, Dembrowski, G. Gundermann).
Total Fouls - Steel-High 17, Palmyra 13
Fouled Out - None