WARMINSTER >> A popular saying in basketball circles is that it’s not about who starts but who finishes.
Friday night on the road, it wasn’t a matter of who but of how Cheltenham started and finished. A strong start gave the visitors a lead they would hold throughout and when William Tennent got within a point in the final quarter, a strong finish made that sure that start was rewarded.
A big game from Saleem Payne and the team’s defense out-did a productive night for Derrik Cosenza as Cheltenham topped William Tennent 64-55 to remain unbeaten in the SOL Freedom.
“We stuck together,” Payne, a junior point guard, said. “We played well as a team, we played defense, shot well, shared the ball and I’m glad I could lead my team to victory.”
Payne was terrific, scoring 28 points, dishing four assists and chalking up two steals while showing a lot of poise and control navigating Tennent’s defense. The junior was also a perfect 8-of-8 at the foul line in the fourth quarter to ice the win.
Although the first meeting between the two went to Cheltenham (8-0, 7-0 SOL Freedom), the visitors didn’t have as much practice time to prepare for the rematch and knew their defense would be critical. The host Panthers run good halfcourt offense, so the road team tried to disrupt that as much as possible with a man press aimed at forcing turnovers.
That ability to create takeaways allowed Cheltenham to go on an 11-0 run through the middle of the opening quarter, with Payne scoring five points and assisting on a 3-pointer as the visiting Panthers took a 15-4 lead. While Tennent (8-3, 6-3 SOL Freedom) was able to settle in, the hosts still trailed 18-10 after one and had to try to gain ground the rest of the night.
“We knew they were going to have runs, they’re a good team, so we had to stick to the plan and keep grinding,” Tennent coach Robert Mulville said. “No. 11 (Payne), he’s a really good player and he did what good players do and closed out the game. You practice to extend the game and hope for a miss, but good players make those shots and he did.”
Tennent closed within a single point twice, first in the second quarter thanks to the passing of Jay Stanfield. The senior guard had eight points but also seven assists and three of them came during an 11-2 run that pulled the host Panthers within 22-21 midway through the frame.
Seeing most of its lead eroded, Cheltenham punched back with a 7-0 run that saw Rasheem Dearry bookend a Payne three with a pair of baskets inside. Cheltenham coach Patrick Fleury was pleased with the way his guys took Tennent’s shots in each quarter and kept responding.
“They did a tremendous job staying with their stuff and I think we did an OK job getting them out of it,” Fleury said. “We couldn’t sit and go over it like the first time, but our guys fought back. They were up, they saw adversity and they came back, they didn’t turn on each other and took it possession by possession.”
Fleury gave a lot of credit to his staff of assistants Torre Harrison, Sharif Bray, Steve Smith, Malcolm Weston and Brian Neely for seeing and correcting mistakes on Friday and also helping the Panthers grow and improve as a team during the season. Cheltenham started practice and competition later than most other area programs, but the team has been playing well despite the challenges the year has brought.
“It’s a testament to the players as a whole, the coaches and the camaraderie between the team, the coaches and our administration that has supported us,” Fleury said.
Stanfield closed the half with four points in three seconds to cut the Cheltenham lead to 33-27 at the break and Cosenza was able to get going as the guards started to handle the defensive pressure better. Cosenza, a senior forward, scored 22 points to lead Tennent and tallied seven points in the third as the hosts got within 41-38 heading to the last eight minutes.
Payne said keeping Cosenza under wraps was a major focus and while the Tennent senior did pile up points, Cheltenham kept him to just five in the fourth quarter
“He played very well, he got his buckets but I think we played him pretty solid,” Payne said. “We had the help defense, every time they drove; we pinched in but hustled to get back on shooters.”
Tennent opened the final quarter with four straight points, shaving Cheltenham’s lead to 43-42 with 6:41 to play. Cheltenham senior Mike McClain answered with a big bucket on the next possession, however the Panthers came back and got an open 3-point look that could have tied it but didn’t drop.
Payne snared the rebound off that miss, took off in transition and dished to Brandon Hawkins, who finished the layup on the run. Tennent hit a poorly-timed cold spell, missing its next two shots with the Panthers converting off both to get the lead back up to 52-42 with 4:30 on the clock.
“In the beginning of the season, I didn’t have that many assists but the last couple games, I’ve been working to give the ball up,” Payne said. “I trust my teammates and it’s been working, everything is falling into place.
“We hit a lot of shots but we still have to work on defense. We have a tendency to watch, even me, so we need to stay locked in all the time.”
Consenza gave his team a lifeline by converting an and-one with 2:29 to go that cut the lead to 46-52, but Cheltenham responded with a bucket when McClain found Justin Savage and after a pair of Tennent turnovers, the hosts had to foul and Cheltenham hit all 10 of its fourth quarter foul shots.
Tennent, which has 10 seniors on the roster, entered the night No. 17 in the District 1-6A rankings with the top 20 teams qualifying for the postseason. The Panthers have five more games on their schedule, mostly against other 6A teams so they’re eager to rebound from Friday’s loss and try to earn a spot in districts.
“There’s a reason (Cheltenham) is ranked so high in the district, so we said to take it as a learning experience,” Mulville said. “We saw different pressures and that’s what you’ll see from a good team at the district level. They’ll be disappointed at the result but I think they’ll take something out of it and turn it into a positive.”
Savage had 12 points and three steals, Dearry finished with 10 points, six boards and three steals and McClain added four assists for Cheltenham, which came into the game No. 6 in 6A. Fleury said he wanted to get more guys into the game and believes this is a deep roster of players that is working hard to make the most of their opportunity to play.
“Our guys are consistently making plays for one another,” Fleury said. “Saleem Payne, he’s very good so he draws a lot of attention but the beautiful thing is; he’s a willing passer. For us, the biggest thing is we didn’t succumb to the game of runs and within that game, we found something to hang our hat on which was the defensive end and sharing the ball.”
CHELTENHAM 65, WILLIAM TENNENT 55
CHELTENHAM 18 15 10 21 – 64
WILLIAM TENNENT 10 17 11 17 – 55
Cheltenham: Saleem Payne 8 9-10 28, Rasheem Dearry 3 4-4 10, Brandon Hawkins 2 0-0 5, Justin Savage 4 4-4 12, Mike McClain 1 0-0 2, Ife West-Ingram 2 0-0 5, Elias Walker 1 0-0 2. Totals: 21 17-18 64.
William Tennent: Derrik Cosenza 10 2-4 22, Matt Miller 2 0-2 5, Jay Stanfield 4 0-0 8, Mike Scheller 3 0-0 8, Ryan Emmerich 2 0-0 4, JP McAnulty 1 0-0 2, Kirby Mooney 2 1-2 6. Totals: 24 3-8 55.
3-pointers: C – Payne 3, Dearry, Hawkins; WT – Scheller 2, Miller, Mooney.