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Ian Gross hits free throws in final seconds to lift Cherry Hill East past Williamstown

Updated: Jan 5, 2023

WILLIAMSTOWN (N.J.) - Cherry Hill High School East senior Ian Gross looked unphased as he was sent to the free throw line with 4.1 seconds left on the clock.

Once the ball was in his hands, Gross didn't flinch.

The southpaw drained a pair of free throws to lift Cherry Hill East past Williamstown, 53-51, in a nonleague matchup between South Jersey Group 4 opponents on Tuesday night.

"I just knew I had to focus on my form," Gross said. "Not listen to the crowd and just knock free throws down so we can get a win. I knew I needed to make those shots. It was a must win game for us and I just had to turn it on."

The senior scored 11 of his team-high 16 points in the fourth quarter and finished 6-for-7 from the free throw line.

"His leadership has been excellent," Cherry Hill East coach Dave Allen said. "He's been great in these moments. He's having a great season. We always say we want selfless players. He is that."

"Last year he could have played more," Allen added. "But he was a kid who came off the bench and we played five guys 95 percent of the time. And now he's waited for his moment, and he's played great in this moment. He grew up in our program, he came to our camps, he's what Coach Valore said a Cherry Hill East basketball player is. That's the best compliment I can pay. A kid who's committed, dedicated, loyal and provides great leadership."

Williamstown opened the first quarter on a 6-2 run and led 13-11 after one period.

The Braves extended their lead to 22-17 on a massive slam dunk by Fred Orock with 3:25 left in the second quarter. It was the largest advantage for either team throughout the course of the contest.

Cherry Hill East responded with a 9-2 spurt to take a 26-24 lead into intermission. Roman Catholic (Pa.) transfer Jack Flannery and Brian Cotter nailed back-to-back triples to ignite the run.

Josiah Carey scored nine of his game-high 18 points in the first half for Williamstown and consistently used his speed to establish a lead step on a defender and then sink a jump shot off the dribble. Cristian Mazzamuto gave the East defense fits with his ability to move off his pivot foot, force defenders off their feet and score in the process.

The Cougars' defensive adjustments proved to be the difference in the second half.

"We really focused on defense," Gross said. "In the first half we were letting layups happen, open threes. We just had to communicate and make sure defense turns to offense to get the win."

Neither team led by more than three points in the second half.

Flannery tallied the final six points of the third quarter for Cherry Hill East and scored five unanswered points after Landon Eaton scored to give Williamstown a 35-32 lead.

The senior matched Gross with a team-high 16 points. His five-point surge provided the Cougars with a 37-35 advantage after three quarters.

"He gives us another option," Allen said. "He can create his own shot and he can make guys better on the floor. He made some big plays for us, but he's been doing that all year. He's a big addition to our team and really integral to our success."

10 lead changes occurred in the fourth quarter. The Braves' final lead came on a baseline drive by Jordan Vespe with 1:46 left in regulation.

Gross inserted his heroics, and the rest was history.

"We made it harder than what it could've been by having some bad turnovers," Allen said. "We executed and made the plays at the pivotal times when we needed to win.

"(Williamstown coach) Tom Sheridan has done a great job with this program and this team. They played as hard as any team that's played against us this year. I think it really helps prepare us as we go back into the conference. Playing this team is just like playing a team in our league."

Freshman Chris Delgado added 10 points for the Cougars. Cherry Hill East improved its record to 7-2 with its fifth consecutive triumph. Tuesday night's atmosphere helped prepare the Cougars for upcoming road trips to Lenape, Washington Township and Camden Catholic, and ultimately allowed them to encounter a playoff-like atmosphere and circumstances.

"Every place we play is going to be loud," Gross said. "We just got to focus on our game, not let the crowd affect us and get the win."

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