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Santo steps up to lead Cherry Hill East

Forget the numbers.

Forget the numbers.

Never mind the school records, the scoring averages, the gaudy statistics.

If you want to know about a player, check out his work in the fourth quarter of a close game.

If you want to see even deeper, focus on his performance in the final two minutes, with the crowd on its feet and everybody's throat in their mouth, and an underdog opponent on the brink of a surprising victory.

"The last four years, I've seen seniors step up in big moments," Cherry Hill East's Chris Santo said. "This is my year to do that."

A quick glance at the box score will show that Santo scored 22 points to lead Cherry Hill East to a 56-53 victory over Timber Creek on Friday in an Olympic Conference interdivision game.

That's not the whole story.

It's when Santo scored most of his points that made the difference. It's what he did in the fourth quarter, and on the Cougars' final two possessions, that sent that red-clad chorus of fans bouncing into the cold December night.

Santo scored nine of his points in the fourth quarter. He powered inside for layups on consecutive possessions in the final 1 minute, 12 seconds, both times after Timber Creek pulled within a point.

"He's the complete package," Timber Creek coach Bill Fahy said. "He did a terrific job."

The opening-day victory was a struggle for Cherry Hill East, thanks to early jitters, lingering injuries, and a tenacious Timber Creek defense.

The Cougars, ranked No. 8 in South Jersey by The Inquirer in the preseason, got a big lift from junior guard Marc Schlessel, who hit five three-pointers and finished with 17 points. For the game, veteran coach John Valore's team made 10 three-pointers.

But the Cougars definitely are a work in progress. Schlessel and senior guard Dan Melleby missed time in the preseason with injuries and aren't back to full strength, and some others still are feeling their way at the varsity level.

"We didn't play our best game," Santo said. "Credit to Timber Creek. They played great defense, especially on me. But we haven't really scratched the surface of how good we can be."

Santo already is Cherry Hill East's all-time leading scorer with 1,851 points. He has a scholarship to Vermont.

But this is his senior season. His focus isn't on more points or additional records.

It's on carrying the Cougars to possible division and sectional titles in what could be Valore's 35th and final season.

"My dad and I keep track of everything," Santo said. "We were looking at some things the other day, and I was like, 'This [Friday's opener] will be my 82d game.' For some guys, it was, like, their first game and it was my 82d."

Santo shot 8 for 16 from the field but struggled to find his groove against Timber Creek's defense.

"They kept me out of my comfort zone," Santo said.

Still, the 6-foot-5 swingman was there at the end. After sophomore Sameen Swint pulled Timber Creek within 52-51 with a free throw, Santo posted up, took a feed from Sam Rose, and deposited a layup to jack the Cougars' edge to 54-51 at the 1:12 mark.

Timber Creek senior Mikal Demby, whose creative play forced Cherry Hill East to switch to a diamond-and-one defense on several possessions, cut the lead to 54-53 with a driving layup with just inside of a minute to play.

But Santo answered again. This time, he drove from the left side and made another layup for a 56-53 lead with 0:34 on the clock.

"When we put him inside, he's tough to contain because he's so powerful," Valore said.

Timber Creek wasn't able to score again, and Cherry Hill East's redshirted, rowdy student section was able to breathe a collective sigh of relief after victory No. 1.

Santo and the rest of the Cougars were relieved, too.

"If they're all going to be this close," Santo said, "they should raise the prices."

Timber Creek   14 11 8 20 - 53

Cherry Hill East   15 14 15 12 - 56

TC: Mikal Demby 12, Caylan Gramby 13, Dajaunn Drennan 11, Sameen Swint 12, D.J. Dunham 2, Dimetrius Essex 3.

CHE: Chris Santo 22, Marc Schlessel 17, Jake Gurkin 8, Sam Rose 3, Dan Melleby 6.