By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
CHERRY HILL — Fouth-seeded Cherry Hill East never expected to see the No. 16 Egg Harbor Township Eagles staring back at them at the start of the South Jersey Group 4 semifinals on Saturday afternoon. EHT was never expected to get past top-seeded Toms River North in the tournament’s opening round, or No. 9 Williamstown in the quarterfinals, for that matter.
And the host Cougars got all they could handle before punching their ticket to the championship game, as EHT took Cherry Hill East to double overtime before the Cougars held on for a 57-55 victory. East advances to the sectional championship game on Tuesday against No. 3 Atlantic City, a 61-58 upset winner over second-seeded Lenape.
“I knew we were dangerous and that we hadn’t really played up to our potential all year long,” said EHT coach Cameron Bell. “There were bits and pieces, and every now and then you would see the potential, but that’s the thing about a young team. I said that if we could get in (the playoffs), we could make some noise. It’s tough to lose this way, but it was a helluva game.”
The game featured all kinds of spectacular moments and clutch plays up and down each lineup, as the teams traded punches and tried to outduel each other — it was sort of a combination boxing and chess match. The Eagles trailed, 45-45, in the waning seconds of regulation when guard Carlos Lopez nailed a 3-pointer, and somehow EHT survived East’s possession on the other end to send the game into overtime. Senior Isaih Walsh then tied the game at 52 with 30 seconds left in the first overtime, and the Cougars’ Jake Green narrowly missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, sending the game into a second overtime.
The Eagles (11-17) briefly took a 53-52 lead early in the second overtime as Lopez hit 1-of-2 from the line, but a driving layup by Green and a pair of free throws from Ryan Greene put Cherry Hill East (20-9) up, 56-53. EHT shaved the deficit to 56-55 on a drive from Lopez with 1:03 remaining, but in the final 20 seconds the Eagles couldn’t seem to get a foul on the Cougars. Finally, Green was fouled and hit 1-of-2 from the line to make it 57-55, but by that time the Eagles were left with just .4 seconds on the clock, and a last-ditch inbounds heave was disrupted, sending the Cherry Hill East student section pouring onto center court in celebration.
The Cougars did a great job of playing keep-away in the final 25 seconds, but EHT’s inability to get a foul to put East on the line ultimately cost the Eagles a chance to tie or take the lead.
“What the instructions were, we wanted to foul,” Bell explained. “We wanted to foul No. 24 (Jarren Andrade) because he was their poorest free-throw shooter, but if we couldn’t foul him, when the clock got to 15 seconds we wanted to foul right away. We just didn’t. I’ll never blame my kids, I put the blame on me.”
Anything you can do, I can do better: Despite the seed numbers, this was about as evenly matched as two teams in the state playoffs could get. And they went at it for 40 minutes, with the only significant run an 8-0 spurt by Cherry Hill East early in the third quarter that turned a 21-17 halftime deficit into a 25-21 lead for the Cougars.
With 3:35 left in regulation, East’s E.J. Matthews-Spratley nailed a three to give East a 43-38 lead, but then with 2:26 remaining Ethan Dodd of EHT drained one to pull the Eagles to within 44-43. East’s Drew Greene — who led the Cougars with 21 points before fouling out in overtime — hit a pair of free throws to put his team up 46-43, but EHT answered with a layup from D.J. Germann to slice the lead to one point.
In the first overtime, East took a 52-49 lead by hitting 4-of-6 free throws in 90 seconds, but again EHT responded, as Isaiah Glenn scored on a driving layup to cut the Cougars’ lead to 52-51. In the second overtime, EHT took a 53-52 lead on a free throw from Lopez, but East responded when Green scored on a driving layup to put the Cougars up for good, 54-53.
Stepping up: Walsh, the only four-year starter for the Eagles, played perhaps the best game of his career, time and time again coming up with big plays to keep EHT in the game when the Cougars threatened to gain some separation.
The senior finished with a game-high 23 points and added 10 rebounds, and assist and two blocked shots.
“They can shoot well, there was really nothing we could do about that. I had to use my height advantage against them a lot. We had to go out with a bang. We came up short, but this is the farthest we’ve been in 40 years and I’m proud that we made it this far,” Walsh said. “It means so much to me. The whole atmosphere around the school is different now. When we win, the atmosphere gets better. When you proceed and succeed, they look at you differently. Everybody was shocked — all the pressure was put on us, but we can handle that. Today we came up short, but we went out with a bang.”
“It’s one of those things where he didn’t have the greatest of seasons in his senior year, but without a doubt, he was the heart and the core of this team,” coach Bell said of his star. “He was one of the only ones who had a positive plus-minus all season long. We didn’t have a winning record, but he had a positive plus-minus. That shows you the impact he has on the floor for us, whether he’s scoring or not. This being my fourth year, he’s been a four-year varsity guy for me and I’m going to miss that kid.”
Looking ahead: Just about everyone on EHT’s roster returns next season, including guys like Glenn, Dodd, Lopez and Germann. Bell said he believes his is a program on the rise, and this year’s playoff run shows just how much talent the Eagles have in their program.
“We played hard. These guys believed and they have unbelievable confidence in themselves and their abilities. They stayed locked in the entire game. Emotions ebb and flow throughout the game. Sometimes they got a little down on themselves, but they kept coming back,” Bell said. “”I told the guys, ‘this same team, if we stay together, you’re looking at the 2021 Group 4 state champions.’ I believe that. I believe in my guys and I believe in their talent.”
Walsh had a message for the underclassmen as he was living the gym at Cherry Hill East: “Never back down from a loss. Keep going, keep grinding.”
Stats: EHT got 10 points and five rebounds from Lopez, a transfer from Williamstown, and 10 points and three rebounds from Dodd, a junior. Green finished with 14 points for the Cougars while Matthews-Spratley added nine points, six rebounds and three steals.
What’s next: Cherry Hill East travels to Atlantic City on Tuesday at 7 p.m. for the South Jersey Group 4 championship.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays