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Milton Hershey upsets Palmyra in district quarterfinals

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PALMYRA – It’s a playoff game, so of course any team is going to be highly motivated.

But when a team has a rematch with a rival after blowing a big lead the first time they met, there’s probably a little more extra juice going into the second meeting.

This was the indication the Palmyra boys basketball team had, knowing they escaped with a one-point win at Milton Hershey back on Dec. 17, after erasing a 16-point halftime deficit.

And the Spartans applied the pressure early and often, disrupting and frustrating the Cougars, leading to Milton Hershey pulling off the upset with a 76-71 win over Palmyra Thursday in the District 3 Class 5A Quarterfinals at Palmyra High School.

With the win, Milton Hershey is bound for GIANT Center for Monday’s semifinals against Mechanicsburg, who defeated Lampeter-Strasburg 58-47 in their quarterfinal game Thursday. Tip-off is at 6:30.

Thanks to the loss, Palmyra falls to the Class 5A Consolation Semifinals Monday against L-S at Lebanon High School for an 8 p.m. tip-off, with a trip to the Fifth Place Game on the line.

Cougars guard Isaac Blatt said, “We knew they were hungry because we beat them the first time, but we felt the same way. We had an awful first half in that game and played a second half and built off that. Obviously this game is disappointing. We dreamed about going to GIANT Center and playing for a district championship. But there’s a long road ahead, playing for fifth place in districts and hopefully making a run in states.”

Palmyra coach Pete Conrad said, “The truth is at this point, there’s a bunch of really good teams, and Milton Hershey’s one of them. You can see how disappointed the guys are. But I had a lot of pride in how we responded at times.”

There were definitely plenty of big responses from the Cougars, down by as many as 10 in the second half.

The first was a Bryant Willis 3, bringing Palmyra all the way back to within 64-63 with 3:53 left.

Blatt followed by tying the game at 68 with 2:23 left, thanks to a pair of free throws, with the electricity of a full-capacity crowd behind him.

“It’s difficult to block it out. You just have to focus on making the shot,” Blatt said, who led all scorers with 27 points.

“I knew I had to carry us and contribute more in the second half. My teammates did a great job getting the scoring going in the first half, so I had to do my part.”

Then after Milton Hershey’s Jaiden Young knocked down the jumper to give his team the lead at 70-68 with 2:06 left, Willis did make things interesting after hitting another 3, making it 73-71 Spartans with 20.9 left. Milton Hershey closed it out on the free throw line, however.

“They certainly made some big shots, but I don’t know if that was execution,” Conrad said. “They just have some shot makers. Unfortunately we gave up a couple of blow-by’s once we did get it back. They’re just a good basketball team.”

The Cougars also suffered another slow start against the Spartans in facing their scrappy full-court press, turning it over eight times in the first quarter, leading to 18 total.

Conrad said, “They’re the best pressing team we’ll see all year, and a piece of that is you can’t replicate it in practice. The guys adjusted to it and I think we did a better job against it as the game went on.”

Even though a district championship is no longer in play, the Cougars still know these next two games in consolations are crucial to setting up their path in the upcoming PIAA Tournament.

“The thought process is we let this breathe a little bit,” Conrad said. “Our guys are great about accountability, knowing we didn’t play our best game. We realize that fifth place game is really important towards our match up in states, and we’ll embrace that next challenge. It’s an awesome and resilient bunch of guys and they’ll bounce back.”