The ref whistled for the timeout, but the sold-out gym was so loud and frenzied that most on the court didn’t even hear it.
The home team had caught fire — 11 points in less than three minutes — and Cherry Hill West’s sizable lead against defending state champion Moorestown was down to two in the fourth quarter.
When the Lions finally reached their sideline for that timeout they called, the feeling in the gym was easy to sense: This was the moment when underdogs tend to fade away and home favorites flex their muscles.
Except Cherry Hill West never — at any point — looked or played like an underdog on Friday night.
They didn't fade away either.
“When we went into that timeout, we knew we were going to win this game,” said senior guard Hakim Melvin. “That’s what we dreamed of, that’s what we came here to do.”
And that’s what they did.
Despite being a lower seed on the road against a defending state champion, Cherry Hill West played with poise and looked hungrier than its opponent Friday night — and never trailed at any point after the first quarter — in a 63-54 win over Moorestown in the South Jersey Group 3 semifinals.
“That’s been the whole season for us: Other teams go on runs — it’s cool. We know we’re going to fight back. We know who we are,” said forward Jordan Lipford, whose fifth-seeded Lions extended their win streak to nine games and will play Monday against No. 2 seed Timber Creek for the sectional title.
Melvin finished with a team-high 17 points. Lipford finished with 13.
Lipford scored 11 of those points in the fourth quarter — nine came after the top-seeded Quakers started raining three-pointers to erase the 10-point lead the Lions held to end the third.
Lipford was a picture of his team’s effort down the stretch: He helped West bully momentum back from Moorestown.
“A big part of the game came down to rebounding on foul shots — unbelievable — we couldn’t get a rebound,” said Moorestown coach Shawn Anstey, who noted that we was happy with his team’s effort, overall, and proud of its accomplishments over a stellar four-year stretch. “They just looked hungrier than us, and they had some bounces go their way.”
All three times the Lions missed a live free throw in the fourth quarter, they got the rebound.
And every time they needed a shot, they made one. The Lions (21-8) were 11 of 13 from the foul line in the fourth quarter.
And after their timeout with the score 47-45 — when Moorestown seemingly had all the momentum — the Lions held Moorestown scoreless over the next four minutes while it built back a 10-point lead.
Melvin was a sparkplug throughout. He raced down the court and hit a layup at the third quarter buzzer, and his fast-break layup, off his own steal, with 2:38 left, gave West a 53-45 lead and completely reversed the feeling in the gym from minutes earlier.
But most of Cherry Hill West’s damage in the final quarter was done in the paint, including two beautiful feeds from point guard Justin Smith to Lipford that led to two buckets.
“I was just trying to feel the game out — they were playing a lot of help [defense] and the guards were doing a great job of getting into the paint,” Lipford said. “But my teammates were able to make great passes.”
Evan Francisco led the Quakers (26-3) with 16 points, Shane Knobloch chipped in 12.
Francisco scored 10 in the fourth quarter, including two three-pointers, as his team mounted a comeback.
But it wasn’t enough for a team that was cold through most of the game against a West team that looked more cohesive and more consistent throughout.
“Families stick together — they had us as an underdog, but that’s not what we are,” said Amari Robinson. “Now we want the chip.”
Cherry Hill West 17 12 15 19 — 63
Moorestown 14 13 7 20 — 54
CHW: Jordan Lipford 13, Hakim Melvin 17, Justin Smith 9, Amari Robinson 9, Stephan Flynn 12, Josh Ross 3.