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Short-handed Cheltenham beats Plymouth Whitemarsh, closes in on SOL American title

CHELTENHAM >> Many thought Cheltenham’s season was in jeopardy when star point guard Zahree Harrison suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of the season.

Many were wrong.

The Panthers improved to 16-2 overall and 10-0 in Suburban One League American Conference play with a 64-59 win over Plymouth Whitemarsh Friday night at Cheltenham High School.

Harrison, a Saint Francis (Pa.) commit, was cheering teammates on from the sideline with crutches and a brace around his leg while his classmates moved one step closer to an SOL American title with four games remaining and a two-game lead over Wissahickon.

“(Harrison) is still very much a part of it,” Cheltenham coach Patrick Fleury said. “Obviously it’s going to be true all year – we would’ve been a much different team with him. I’m very confident with the group that we have, but that was our most experienced player on the varsity level and a Division I player at that. Absolutely, (losing him) was hard. Adversity has always been what we understand that we’re going to have to go through, especially from the first quarter of our first game. We scored 106 (in the opener), but I think he had like seven points, four rebounds, four assists in the quarter. Just to see him go down – I think everybody didn’t know how serious it was.”

The Panthers jumped out to a big lead early Friday night and stayed ahead until the final whistle. They went on a 13-2 run to take a 15-4 advantage in the first quarter. When PW cut its deficit to 25-23 in the second quarter, Cheltenham extended it to 37-32 before halftime. When PW got it to two again, 45-43, in the third quarter, Cheltenham went on a 7-2 run to take a 52-45 lead to the fourth. And when PW was desperately trying to rally in the final minutes, Cheltenham went 8-for-11 from the free-throw line to close out the win, 64-59.

“When you have guys that have been around each other and grown up and gone through a lot of things on and off the court,” Fleury said, “it’s easier to look at somebody in a time of need and just trust that they have your best interest at heart. That’s the biggest thing for us that’s been going on and has been happening. Each guy trusts one another. Our motto is ‘turn to and not on.’ Turn to each other, not on each other. For us that’s the biggest thing – win, lose or draw.”

It was a team effort for the Panthers, as it has been all year. Sam Emfinger scored a team-high 18 points, Travis Coleman added 13 and Brandon Scott had 10.

“We’ve got seniors all the way down to sophomores that are good basketball players,” Fleury said, noting 10th graders Saleem Payne and Justin Moore as key pieces to the team’s success. “We’re building, each day-in and day-out, our habits and what we can be. One through 14 we definitely have confidence.

“I think our first 10 points today, everybody had two. To me, that’s the testament to who we are and what we can be.”

Caelin Peters did everything he could to keep the Colonials (8-10, 6-4 SOL American) in the game. The senior scored a game-high 28 points. Luke DiCianno added 11 points and Zuri Jerman had eight.

Plymouth Whitemarsh entered the game No. 25 in the District 1-6A rankings, where the top 24 teams make the playoffs. The Colonials have four games left to try to work their way into the postseason.

“At this point in time we can’t be overly critical,” PW coach Jim Donofrio said. “They’re close to figuring it out. We may run out of games before we do. I don’t think we can look at it that way anymore. We made our bed early. I think the kids are trying to figure out what it means to follow some detailed rules for a game. You’re off-setting that with youth and energy. It’s a unique district this year. I think our goal simply has to be to try to find a spot in the district and another week of seasoning and you just might be able to shorten the learning curve finally.”

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