Palmyra’s Emily Cleckner, Kelsey McNamara and Katie Gundermann celebrate their team’s victory over Hershey on Monday night that completed an
Palmyra's Emily Cleckner, Kelsey McNamara and Katie Gundermann celebrate their team's victory over Hershey on Monday night that completed an undefeated regular season. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS ASHLEY WALTER)
HERSHEY - The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines perfection as "the quality or state of being perfect; freedom from fault or defect."

The Palmyra girls' basketball team defines it a little differently.

For the Cougars, perfection means 22-0, Mid-Penn Keystone Division champs and memories that will only last a lifetime or so.

Palmyra took one final, sometimes wobbly, step to the remarkable feat of an undefeated regular season Monday night, narrowly surviving a top-notch Hershey squad, 43-42, in an epic clash of Keystone titans at Hershey High School.

At times it appeared that the burden associated with chasing perfection combined with an extremely high-caliber effort from the Trojans would sidetrack the Cougars' quest for an unblemished regular-season record and a third straight division title.

But Palmyra (22-0, 16-0 Keystone) countered what seemed to be working against it with sublime play down the stretch from Kait Carmo and Maria Tukis and an unshakeable collective will to finish the job of creating a season for the ages.

It wasn't easy and it wasn't supposed to be.

In the end, that made it all the more meaningful to the Cougars, whose journey to perfection was summed up - well, perfectly - by a teary-eyed Carmo moments after she emerged from an emotional locker room scene the depth of which only the players and coaches who were in there can fully understand.

"Exciting at first, emotional at the end," Carmo said of what went on postgame. "Every emotion possible, I guess. We can't believe we got this far.


It's really hard to come out with your best shot every game, and we were able to do that this season. We just were able to do something special that is really humbling to be a part of."

They completed it more with pure guts and determination than with textbook execution.

Struggling mightily against Hershey's aggressive, smothering zone defense and frankly in need of a stun gun to control its brilliant backcourt of sisters Victoria and Gabriela Blackburn, Palmyra never really settled in or settled down.

Never gave in, either.

Down 41-37 after Victoria Blackburn dropped in the last of her game-high 18 points with 2:30 left, the Cougars quickly rallied to tie behind four straight points from Tukis, then went ahead to stay when Carmo scored on a sweet lefty scoop shot/drive with 36 seconds to go.

"That was the type of game it was gonna be," said Palmyra coach Ron Berman. "I just knew it was gonna be a great game. I knew we wouldn't quit, and I knew they (the Trojans) don't get to be where they are without being a great team. I thought it was just a great high school basketball game."

Even the coach on the losing end, Hershey's Randy Gambelunghe, could find precious little to be troubled about after seeing his team (18-3, 14-2) play its own starring part in such a riveting production.

Palmyra s Kait Carmo finds herself surrounded by Hershey defenders Samantha Kirk (25) and Victoria Blackburn on Monday night during the Cougars  dramatic
Palmyra s Kait Carmo finds herself surrounded by Hershey defenders Samantha Kirk (25) and Victoria Blackburn on Monday night during the Cougars dramatic 43-42 win that clinched both an undefeated regular season and the Mid-Penn Keystone Division title. Carmo tallied the go-ahead points in the final minute to give Palmyra a perfect 22-0 record. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS ASHLEY WALTER)

"That was a great high school basketball game," the Trojans' boss said, smiling. "In all honesty, I'm not disappointed. We gave it everything we got. I'm just so proud of the girls. We put it all out there. It didn't come out our way, but it could have."

Hershey certainly had things going its way for much of the night, led by the aforementioned zone that harassed Palmyra into 14 first-half turnovers and provided the confidence needed to deny the Cougars' dreams of 22-0.

Palmyra did lead 13-9 after the first quarter and managed to get to the half down just 22-20 with the aid of Carly Richardson's nine first-half points. And after back-to-back 3-pointers from Gabi Gundermann and Richardson (team-high 12 points) early in the third quarter, there was a sense that the Cougars may have weathered the storm.

But, sparked by the Blackburns, the Trojans sent Palmyra scurrying for umbrellas on the way to opening up a 33-28 lead after three quarters.

The Cougars refused to crumble, though, responding with a 7-0 run to open the fourth that culminated with a foul-line jumper by Carmo and a 35-33 lead with 4:01 left.

"We keep our composure in hard situations," Carmo said. "We felt the pressure, but we had each other's backs. In the end, we knew we had each other's backs."

And so they did. Though Hershey would put the contest back on its see-saw and grab the aforementioned 41-37 lead with 2:30 left, Palmyra made a series of plays down the stretch that defined its team-first mentality.

Palmyra s Maria Tukis goes up for two of her 10 points as Hershey s Libby Nolan arrives too late to stop the play.
Palmyra s Maria Tukis goes up for two of her 10 points as Hershey s Libby Nolan arrives too late to stop the play. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS ASHLEY WALTER)

There was Gundermann's diving tip of a ball to Carmo seconds after she had committed an apparently costly turnover that would have led to an easy Hershey fastbreak.

There was Carmo's brilliant play off that hustling effort, a gorgeous no-look bounce bass to Tukis for the tying layup with 1:25 left. And, of course, Carmo's own daring drive through traffic that provided the winning points with barely half a minute left.

Finally, there was scrambling, leave-it-all-out there defensive play in the frantic waning seconds, which climaxed with Gabriela Blackburn misfiring on what would have been a game-winning "3" as the clock ticked toward all zeroes.

"It was just incredible," Carmo said of the feeling of exhilaration that came with the sound of the final buzzer. "Every single person on the bench felt the emotion. It just felt awesome, because we know that even the people not on the court, they feel it, too. It's part of team chemistry and chemistry's the most important thing."

Now it's on to the Mid-Penn tournament next week against a still undetermined opponent, and then to the District Three tournament, where Palmyra will likely be the top seed in AAA.

22-0 won't win the Cougars any games in the postseason, and that's OK with Berman. In his mind, what his team just accomplished is more difficult than any postseason title march could ever be.

"I'm different than most coaches," he said. "I think the season is the most important thing. Your season is eight weeks, your kids have to play two, three games a week and everybody's trying to beat you. And once you get to 8-0, 10-0 you have an extra target on your back, and you have to play well mentally and physically every night or you get beat."

Palmyra didn't get beat. Not once. Their coach knows why.

"This group," Berman said, "just plays all the time."