VOORHEES – There is nothing like a little adversity to make the good times feel extra special.
Anthony DiCaro and Damian Smith, seniors on Cherokee High School’s boys basketball team, know a little something about adversity and both put theirs behind them Thursday afternoon in an early season Olympic Conference American Division showdown against Eastern.
DiCaro, who missed four games in the early going with a groin pull, lit it up in the third quarter against the Vikings, hitting three treys while scoring 13 of his game-high 24 points and Smith, who sat out all last year with a broken leg, scored 11 of his 20 in the fourth quarter as the Chiefs handed the Vikings their first loss of the season, 64-52.
“We held him out of four games with a groin strain,” Cherokee coach Eric Cassidy said of DiCaro. “It took him a while to get into the flow. Today he had a tremendous second half. Damian broke his leg in phys ed class last year. I got the call to come down to the gym and, there he was, he had broken his leg. But his work ethic is unbelievable and I’m happy for him. He’s our leader.”
Smith was steady in the first half, scoring seven points with a three to lead the Chiefs who trailed the Vikings at halftime, 21-19, but then Di Caro caught fire. After Smith scored a bucket to tie the game, DiCaro scored Cherokee’s next 10 points on two threes, a drive down the right side of the lane and two free throws as the Chiefs took a five-point lead. His 13th point of the quarter and third three-pointer gave the Chiefs a 36-30 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
“I stayed positive because I got a lot of support from my teammates,” DiCaro said of the time he was out. “When I first came back I had to work to get back into the flow of the game. It took some time to find that chemistry. “
Smith took over in the fourth quarter. After DiCaro hit a bucket to put the Chiefs up by eight points, Smith scored seven of the Chiefs next nine points. He was fouled on a layup and converted the foul shot, hit two more free throws as Eastern was into the bonus early in the quarter and scored on another drive as Cherokee opened up a 47-34 lead.
“When I was on the bench I got to see the game from a different perspective,” Smith said. “It got me excited about coming back especially since this is my senior year.”
Eastern would never get closer than 11 points mainly because Cherokee was so proficient from the foul line. The Chiefs made 18 of 21 free throws in the fourth quarter and, as they had in every other facet of the game Thursday, DiCaro and Smith led the way. Combined they made all 11 free throws they attempted.
“This team has great chemistry,” Smith explained. “They picked me up when I was out last year and we pick each other up on the court. This game will help us come together even more. We were looking forward to playing Eastern. Next is practice tomorrow and then we’ll look forward to the next game.”
DiCaro said they want to make amends for last year when they were eliminated from the South Jersey Group 4 tournament in the first round. Having him and Smith healthy and producing like they did yesterday is a good start.
Cherokee 64 Eastern 52
Cherokee 7 12 17 28 – 64
Eastern 12 9 9 22 - 52
Cherokee (5-2): Anthony DiCaro 24, Gavin Gibson 6, Justin Kang 4, Zach Miller 2, Olarewaju Oladpio 8, Damian Smith 20.
Eastern (7-1): Ryan Ems 14, Andrew Heck 13, Noah Klinewski 17, Jack Winsett 8.
Eastern jumped out front early behind six points each from Noah Klinewski and Ryan Ems and built a 19-11 lead. But midway through the second quarter, Ems went to the bench with two fouls and Cherokee went on a 8-2 run to close out the half trailing just 21-19. The run was led by DiCaro, who had five points, and Smith with three.
The third quarter was all DiCaro as scored 13 of the 17 points and Cherokee went from down two points to up six, 36-30. Smith took over in the fourth, scoring 11 of his 20 points. Eastern was reduced to fouling but the Chiefs were very efficient from the line making 18 of 21 attempts in the quarter. For the game, they shot 24 of 28.
Klinewski led the Vikings with 17 points while Ems chipped in 14.