For Cheltenham coach Patrick Fleury, the memories are an old wound that has never fully healed.
He still remembers the losses in the District 1 final in his junior and senior seasons. He still remembers the Hershey kisses landing on the court at Villanova, a sweet salute to an opponent that sent him home with a sour taste in his mouth.
“I never got over them,” Fleury said. “I was the point guard both years, we lost both years. It was a double whammy.”
Now Cheltenham’s second-year coach, Fleury has his alma mater back in the District 1 title game for the first time since those back-to-back losses to Chester in his junior season in 2004 and senior season in 2005.
Cheltenham advanced in Class 6A play on Tuesday night with a 77-60 victory over Bensalem, thanks to some solid play from senior Jaelen McGlone and sophomore Justin Moore, among others, and some strong guidance from a coach with a score to settle.
“I got chills just thinking about it,” Fleury said of returning to the District 1 title game for the first time since his senior season. “I was talking to my [former] JV coach and my [former] varsity coach when I walked in today and I told them if I do get that medal, I’m going to give it to them.”
McGlone, a 6-foot-5 swingman and Rider recruit, generated 24 points with six rebounds in the first game of a doubleheader at the Liacouras Center at Temple. He scored 16 after halftime, answering Bensalem’s last rally with an offensive rebound and a three-point play for a 61-50 lead with three minutes, 31 seconds to play.
Moore, a sophomore guard, scored 19 with four assists and senior forward Sean Emfinger added eight points with six steals for third-seeded Cheltenham (24-3).
Cheltenham will face top-seeded Methacton in the District 1 title game on Saturday night, back at the Liacouras Center.
Methacton advanced with an 81-54 victory over Chester in the second semifinal.
Junior guard James Ashford scored 22 points for seventh-seeded Bensalem (19-7), which will play at Chester Saturday in a 3-4 seeding game for the state tournament.
“They are a lot like us, physical,” Fleury said after the foul-filled game. “In the second half, more of our effort was focused on being a better defensive team.”
The teams combined for 72 free throws in a fierce, physical battle before a spirited crowd that included raucous student sections from both schools.
McGlone and Moore hit back-to-back three-pointers as Cheltenham took a 42-28 lead early in the third quarter. The Panthers maintained control for most of the rest of the game, although Bensalem stayed in contention in the fourth quarter as Ashford scored nine points and senior Justin Johnson added five.
“Opportunities presented themselves and I took advantage,” McGlone said. “The key was our defense.”
Bensalem’s springy senior swingman Jeremiah Alexander scored eight points, including a dunk that Fleury felt served as wake-up call for his team.
“He looked like James Worthy, just winded up and dunked on us,” Fleury said. “That was the play that jabbed us and we said, ‘We’re not matching this.’
“But we responded.”
For Fleury, the victory brought back a flood of memories — of the semifinal wins in his junior and senior seasons, the title-game losses to Chester both years, the way he has carried those games with him through his playing career at East Stroudsburg as well as his coaching career.
He can’t take the court again on Saturday night.
But he can finally win another District 1 title for Cheltenham, the program’s since since a famous coach named Paul Westhead and a famous player named Craig Littlepage led the Panthers to the 1968 crown.
“I still think about those games, all the time," Fleury said. "Not that it derails me but just the idea of wanting to avenge it.
“We don’t want to just take the bus to Temple. We want to bring something home.”
Bensalem 16 10 13 21 – 60
Cheltenham 16 16 18 17 – 77
B: Travis Robinson 2, Jeremiah Alexander 8, James Ashford 22, Aaron Sanders 6, Balise Unger 2, Luke Zeidler 9, Justin Johnson 7, Rahul Kohli 4.