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Palmyra rolls to PIAA 1st round win

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SCHUYLKILL HAVEN – Now that there’s officially no tomorrow for the Palmyra boys basketball team, it's apparent that the Cougars, especially their group of eight seniors who have been through everything together, aren’t ready to end their time together just yet.

After a week of refocusing, Palmyra looked like itself again, rolling to a 58-43 win over District 11 runner-up Pottsville Friday in the PIAA Class 5A Tournament First Round at Blue Mountain High School.

When asked if this was his team’s best game of the year, Cougars coach Pete Conrad found it hard to argue.

“It was a good performance,” Conrad said. “You could see Pottsville is very good. They’ve got college basketball player guards, and (Ian) Renninger is a horse…my gosh, what a physical specimen. I think we’ve had a number of games where we’ve played great basketball, but this certainly is right in that mix.”

With the win, the Cougars will play Archbishop Carroll, a 61-48 winner over Great Valley, in Tuesday’s second round, with the time and place TBA.

Three of Palmyra’s seniors certainly came ready to lead the way, led by Bryant Willis, who led all scorers with 19 points, including a monster 6 3’s. Braden Vernet added 15 points, and Isaac Blatt chipped in with 11 points.

After a somewhat slow start, Palmyra made its first move with an 11-1 run to take an 11-4 lead with 2:06 left in the first quarter.

Then the Cougars really took hold of the momentum, as Willis nailed his loudest 3 of the game - a last-second heave from the Pottsville foul line to beat the first quarter buzzer, giving his team a 14-9 lead.

It was the first time Willis had made a shot like that – and boy did it come at a perfect time.

“First time’s always a good one. It looked real good coming out of my hand,” Willis said. “I honestly thought it was going to be short. It just happened to bank in. I didn’t call bank. I think it helped us tremendously.”

Palmyra increased its lead to nine in the second, thanks to a 10-4 run with 3:18 left in the half.

Then carrying a 37-30 lead into the fourth, the Cougars extended their lead to their largest at 40-30 with 5:53 left, thanks to another big 3 from a senior in Sam Sheils.

The Crimson Tide didn’t go away quietly though, cutting the lead to 40-35 after taking advantage of two Cougars turnovers.

Palmyra responded, starting with another big 3 from Willis, triggering an 8-4 run to push the lead to their largest at 50-39 with 2:30 left.

The Cougars closed out the game from the free throw line, extending their lead to their largest at 16.

Willis says for him and his fellow seniors, they knew all they had to do to lead their team back on track was to remember what got them to this point.

“We just wanted to focus on using everyone’s strengths,” Willis said. “Mine is shooting, Braden is a beast in the paint, and Isaac has an all-around game, so we just wanted to stick with what we do best.”

And that determination trickled down to the rest of the team, in making sure the journey didn’t end.

“We just didn’t want to give up,” Willis said. "When it got real close, we had the resiliency to take the lead and to find ways to make plays. That’s what coach tells us to do. It made us ready for this game.”

Besides his players wanting to extend their season, Conrad also thought their opponent’s style of play would also lead to good things for his team.

Conrad said, “I think a team like Pottsville that’s going to grind you like that brings out the best in those competitors. It was a good matchup for us…in the sense that Pottsville’s competitiveness and intensity…I thought would bring the same out in us.”

Now going forward, no matter who they play next, it’s safe to say the Cougars’ swagger is back.

“It gives us a lot of confidence,” Willis said. “I honestly think that with the confidence that we have after this win, I think we’ll be just fine for when we play again.”