Cedar Crest s Alex Rich tries to keep control of the ball while being defended by Palmyra s Carly Richardson, left, and Katie Dembrowski on Wednesday
Cedar Crest s Alex Rich tries to keep control of the ball while being defended by Palmyra s Carly Richardson, left, and Katie Dembrowski on Wednesday night. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS JEREMY LONG)
Undefeated Palmyra, the second-ranked girls' basketball team in District Three's Class AAA rankings, took time out from its Mid-Penn Keystone Division schedule Wednesday night to take on Cedar Crest in the Falcons' cage.

And even though the Cougars pulled away eventually for a 44-37 win over the young Falcons, who were led by sophomores Alex Rich and Rachel Miller, Palmyra coach Ron Berman knew his team was tested.

"First of all, credit Cedar Crest, because they played us tough," Berman said. "We were fortunate to get out of here with a win. We didn't play our best, but I guess that's the sign of a good team when you don't play your best and still win."

The closest game Palmyra had while going 14-0 this season, prior to the Crest test, was an 11-point win at Mechanicsburg earlier in the season. The Wildcats held an 8-0 lead in that game before the Cougars came back to win.

Perhaps the fact that Mechanicsburg is next on Palmyra's schedule on Friday night in the Cougars' gym factored into their less-than-stellar performance. Palmyra was also without one of its top seven players, sophomore Katy McClellan, who missed the game with a pinched nerve in her neck.

"I don't know if it was because we have exams this week or maybe we were looking forward to Mechanicsburg," Berman said. "But we just weren't right. Mostly it was because of Cedar Crest. They played us tough. We made some plays, they made some plays."

Senior Kait Carmo and junior Carly Richardson came to the rescue for Palmyra with 14 and 12 points, respectively, while Richardson also grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds for her usual double-double.

It was Carmo's five points in the final 40 seconds of the first half and bucket to open the third quarter that finally enabled the Cougars to open 25-17 lead.

Rich, who finished with a game-high 15 points, and Miller, who had 12, scored four points each in the third period to keep Crest within 35-25 entering the final period.

When Maria Battle opened the fourth quarter with a 3-point bomb for the Falcons, Palmyra knew it was in for a close finish.

Crest got to within 38-33 on Emily Wagner's 3-point shot with 3:37 left and again to within 40-35 on Miller's drive after Carmo went down in the backcourt following an inadvertent elbow from Gabbi Donmoyer after a rebound. Free throws by Gabi Gundermann and one by Katie Dembrowski finally iced the win as time ran out on the Falcons.

"I haven't seen a lot of Palmyra," said Crest coach Jim Donmoyer, whose club fell to 5-10, "but I haven't seen many teams stay with them. We gave them a seven-point game. We got it down to five a couple of times, but couldn't cut it closer. They were holding the ball at the end, which says something about the effort of my team."

Donmoyer said aside from not winning, he couldn't find much fault in his team.

Falcons Alex Rich, left, and Gabbi Donmoyer, right, sandwich the Cougars  Carly Richardson while battling for the ball during a non-league tussle in South
Falcons Alex Rich, left, and Gabbi Donmoyer, right, sandwich the Cougars Carly Richardson while battling for the ball during a non-league tussle in South Lebanon. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS JEREMY LONG)

"I'm proud of my team," he said. "They played hard and played tough right to the end. As a coach, you can't ask for much more than that. They gave me their best effort."

When Donmoyer was informed that it was Palmyra's closest game of the season, he nodded in agreement.

"I guess this qualifies as a moral victory, but we're not in it for moral victories," he said. "We want to win. But I guess a game like this, considering how young we are, bodes well for the future."

For Palmyra, Berman said it was also time to look ahead.

"We're happy where we are, but we're taking it one game at a time," he said. "We've got a player out right now with injury, Katy McClellan, and had to change up our lineup tonight. We have a big game Friday against Mechanicsburg."

Palmyra opened a 13-8 first-quarter lead, but Crest hung around the rest of the way. Rich hit a 3-pointer with 5:33 left in the half to keep Crest within 14-11. Palmyra's leading scorer, Richardson, answered with a trey 20 seconds later, but that was her last hoop until the fourth quarter.