By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
EGG HARBOR CITY — Cherry Hill West senior point guard Justin Smith let out a huge sigh of relief when his teammate, Jordan Gonzalez, came down with a rebound with 3.8 seconds remaining in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 3 tournament on Tuesday night at Cedar Creek High School.
The host and No. 7 Pirates were on the verge of pulling off a miraculous comeback, having fought back from a double-digit deficit and having a golden opportunity to win the game — and end Smith’s career.
Cedar Creek forced a turnover with 18 seconds left and trailing, 39-38. Coach Randy Dean drew up an inbounds play, point guard Jamir Cruse got the ball down low in the paint, but the bounces simply didn’t go the Pirates’ way. Two shots from in close rimmed out, Gonzalez came down with the rebound and hit a pair of free throws on the other end, sealing a 41-38 win by No. 10 Cherry Hill West. The Lions advance to face No. 2 Pemberton, a 70-39 winner over No. 15 Seneca, on Thursday in the sectional quarterfinals.
Smith and his teammates live on for at least one more game.
“I’m not going to lie, I ran to my coach and said, ‘everything just left my body.’ I was scared (that we were about to lose) because this could have been my last high school game. I was kind of nervous,” said Smith, who scored a game-high 14 points.
“He’s a four-year starter and one of the toughest guys I’ve ever coached,” Cherry Hill West coach Aaron Burt said of Smith, who helped lead West to a 21-9 record as a sophomore that included a trip to the sectional semifinals, where the Lions lost to Timber Creek. “He means everything to us. He competes at a high level, he takes coaching, and he comes to compete every day. Justin is leading us in every statistical category.”
Smith and the Lions (13-14) got off to a great start, beginning the game on an 8-0 run and leading 13-2 late in the first quarter. But Cedar Creek (13-14) hung around just enough to make things interesting in the second half. Tyree Burrel scored down low on a nice feed from Cruse late in the third quarter, and two minutes later Jeff Morano put back a missed shot to bring the Pirates to within 33-26. The Pirates had trailed by as many as 12 just three minutes prior, but heading into the fourth quarter had shaved the deficit to 33-28.
“They kind of slowed us down with their 2-2-1 press, that kind of stopped us from scoring in the half court and we started turning the ball over at the end of the third quarter and into the fourth quarter. But we were able to push through and get the win,” Smith said. “I’m enjoying this because we came up short my sophomore year. It’s going to take rebounding, fighting and toughness. That’s what the playoffs are all about.”
Cedar Creek trailed 36-28 with less than five minutes to go, but roared back to get to within 36-35 on a steal and layup by Sean Snyder with 3:23 remaining. West converted a couple of free throws with less than two minutes to go to push its lead to 39-35, but Cruse nailed a huge 3-pointer with 22 seconds left. The Pirates then forced a turnover on the ensuing inbounds by West, setting up the key final possession.
“I tell these guys, these are memories you’re making that will be with you for the rest of your life, so whatever it is — it might be bad, it might be good — we were on the lucky end tonight and these will be good memories for us. But now we have to get ready for the next one,” Burt said. “We had a lot of injuries this year, guys who were starters who couldn’t play all season, so we’ve been trying to figure things out. We play two freshmen and they play a lot of minutes, so we’re just figuring it out as we go. We’re just appreciative that we got out of here with a win. It comes down to who is prepared the most and who wants it more. We can celebrate this win in the locker room and on the bus, but as soon as we get off the bus, get ready for school and let us do our jobs tonight as coaches to get us prepared for Thursday.”
“The playoffs are a fresh start,” Smith added. “You have to just win and advance, the regular season doesn’t even matter anymore, to be honest. We just have to keep pushing. I know we’ll be the underdog in most games, but that puts the pressure on other teams, to be honest. We just have to be able to apply the pressure.”
What’s next: Cherry Hill West travels to Pemberton on Thursday for the South Jersey Group 3 quarterfinals, time TBD. Cedar Creek’s season is complete.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays