Experience the difference as Cherry Hill East tops Cherokee to reach South Jersey 4 final
CHERRY HILL – Experience matters.
When the Cherokee High School boys’ basketball team won the South Jersey Group 4 championship in 2019, head coach Eric Cassidy relied on a lineup with four proven seniors and a talented junior.
Cassidy got similar vibes watching Cherry Hill East on Friday afternoon.
The top-seeded Cougars, who start five seniors, punched their ticket to their second sectional final in three years, downing No. 4 Cherokee 46-30 in the South 4 semis at the Al DiBartolomeo Memorial Gymnasium. They’ll take on second-seeded Lenape, who bested No. 3 Egg Harbor Township 66-52 in the other semi.
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“They are hungry right now,” Cassidy said of East.
The Cougars have been that way since 2020, when they fell to Atlantic City in the title game despite holding a lead at the break.
“I think about it a lot,” senior EJ Matthews-Spratley said. “We were up I think three at halftime and it just kind of slipped away from us because we were really, really young. We were all sophomores, one senior starting. I think about it a lot.”
Matthews-Spratley and fellow seniors Drew Greene and Jake Green were starters on that squad. They’ve trained relentlessly since hoping to rectify that night.
“All the time,” Greene responded when asked how often he thinks about that game. “That was the reason I actually started to lift weights, because I knew I wasn’t getting my way. I was 30 pounds less (then), and I just gained a lot of weight. I knew I had to become a better, stronger overall player.”
Greene put that training to use against Cherokee as there was little he didn’t do in the contest.
He drove the lane, creating open looks inside. He jumped passing lanes. He took charges. He crashed the glass. He finished with a game-high 17 points as well as 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 of steals.
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“I knew I needed to have a big game,” Greene said.
The pressure didn’t faze him or the rest of the team.
Cherry Hill East got a scare in the quarterfinals against Eastern but prevailed 46-45. The Cougars started the game against Cherokee with a couple turnovers and Cherokee took an early 3-0, which caused head coach Dave Allen to call a quick timeout.
There wasn’t any concern though. It was just about focusing, remembering they’ve been in tough situations before.
“It’s all about learning from your mistakes and being able to handle adversity,” Greene said. “At times where you’re not playing that well, you got to stay together as a team and be able to keep playing the same way, no matter what.”
Greene took over the rest of that period, netting seven points.
Then it was Jalen Holmes turn.
The senior center dominated the interior with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 4 blocks.
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Two years ago, East lacked the size to compete with Atlantic City’s Stephen Byard down low. Holmes has solved that problem.
“He changed the team tremendously,” said Matthews-Spratley, who chipped in 8 points. “We don’t usually have a big man that can catch, play defense and get rebounds. Monday (in the opening round against Toms River North), he had 20 points and (21 rebounds). Unbelievable. I’m so happy we have him and he’s so ready to play.”
Holmes didn’t play in the championship game against Atlantic City two years ago, but he was on the bench. He has never forgotten that day.
“I was just sinking it in and I knew I wanted to be here as a senior,” he said. “… It’s surreal.”
The mission isn’t done though. Cherry Hill East (28-1) doesn’t want to come up one win short again, and it will square off with the one team that has beaten it this year, Lenape (26-3), for the title on Monday.
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Lenape beats Egg Harbor Township
Lenape was locked in a battle with the Eagles as it led 47-44 with just over seven minutes to play in the game Friday.
However, the Mount Laurel program proceeded to go on a 16-0 run to reach its first sectional final since 2013.
“It means a lot,” said senior Tayvon Gaither, who tied for a team-best 21 points with Aidan Anderson. “We’ve been waiting for this all of our four years playing at Lenape. COVID last year messed us over. My sophomore year we lost in the third round to Atlantic City. We haven’t had a chance to get it back since, so winning this game right here, knowing we’re advancing, is a great feeling.”
Gaither was an animal underneath, controlling the glass and giving his team numerous second chances on the offensive end.
“It doesn’t matter size, height, athletic ability, if you do the fundamentals, box out, and get low and go attack the ball, there’s not much anybody can do to really stop that unless they’re bringing that same intensity you’re bringing,” Gaither said.
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That mentality is what sets Gaither apart.
“I call him the Incredible Hulk,” head coach Matt Wolf said. “He’s the nicest kid in the world and then all of a sudden you get him in these environments and he’s a monster.”
Gaither’s play was just part of the winning formula though.
The defense delivered in the second half, particularly Tekie Clark, who limited Eagles sharpshooter Carlos Lopez to just four points in the final two quarters after he scored 12 in the opening two.
“We’ve said from the beginning if we defend to the end we’re going to win,” Wolf said.
Tye Dorset also stepped up by scoring 10 of his 12 points after the intermission. Derek Simpson added 12 points too.
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Now comes Cherry Hill East. Lenape defeated the Cougars 51-46 on Dec. 23, but lost the rematch 43-39 on Feb. 1. The rubber match will tip at 4 p.m.
“That’s going to be a great game,” Gaither said. “I cannot wait to go to Cherry Hill East.”
Josh Friedman has produced award-winning South Jersey sports coverage for the Courier Post, The Daily Journal and the Burlington County Times for more than a decade. If you have or know of an interesting story to tell, reach out on Twitter at @JFriedman57 or via email at email@example.com. You can also contact him at 856-486-2431. Help support local journalism with a subscription.
This article originally appeared on Cherry Hill Courier-Post: Cherry Hill East, Lenape basketball win to reach South Jersey 4 final