This was the team Cherokee didn’t want to be, a little one-dimensional, a little too reliant on senior guard Anthony DiCaro to carry the offense.
The defense was there, as always. The effort was there, as always.
And DiCaro was ready, willing and able to shoulder the load, leading all scorers with 17 points, generating six points in the frantic, final 38 seconds.
“This was a kid who, all year, looked to distribute the ball,” Cherokee coach Eric Cassidy said of DiCaro after the Chiefs dropped a 44-42 decision to Freehold Township on Wednesday night in the Group 4 state semifinals at Egg Harbor Township High School. “He never looked to get his."
DiCaro hit a step-back three-pointer to cut Freehold Township’s lead to 41-39 at the 0:38 mark and made three free throws to pull Cherokee within 43-42 at 0:06.
But Freehold Township (24-4), the Central Jersey champion, made enough free throws in the final minute to advance to Sunday’s state championship game at Rutgers.
Cherokee (22-9), the South Jersey champion, struggled from the perimeter in Egg Harbor’s cavernous gymnasium in the last game of a long, demanding season.
“I thought we were a little tired,” Cassidy said. “It’s a grueling season, the conference, the playoffs. Give [Freehold Township] credit. They played tough defense.”
Senior Damian Smith scored all 10 of his points in the first half and senior Justin Kang bounced off the bench to score seven in the final three quarters for Cherokee.
But the Chiefs lacked their usual offensive balance, which forced DiCaro to assume more scoring responsibility against Freehold Township’s aggressive man-to-man defense.
“All season I knew my teammates could score,” DiCaro said. “They needed me to score more tonight and I’ll do whatever it takes to help the team.”
Cassidy saluted his senior class, which entered the school just as the coach was taking over the program after several successful seasons at Schalick.
“These guys left a legacy,” Cassidy said. “They bought in. It was always ‘we’ and not ‘me.'
“They were so unselfish, they had each other’s backs. We didn’t have the greatest talent in the world, but I truly believe culture wins and that’s what we had this year.”
DiCaro was a four-year varsity player and an athlete who could have averaged 18 points a game given his skill set. But he became more of a facilitator as a senior, helping to create the unselfish approach that defined the Chiefs.
He was forced to look for his shot more in his final game. DiCaro scored the game’s first basket with a three-pointer, was 7-for-7 from the foul line, and nearly brought the Chiefs all the way back in the final minute.
“I told him, ‘Four years, 81 wins, three conference titles and a South Jersey championship,’” Cassidy said of DiCaro’s career. “That’s nothing to hang your head about.”
DiCaro was confident the sting of the final loss would wear off, allowing the Chiefs to cherish their accomplishments.
“It’s sour right now,” DiCaro said. “But when we look back at this season, we’re going to smile.”
Cherokee 10 10 12 10 – 42
Freehold Twp. 6 17 8 13 – 44
C: Anthony DiCaro 17, Olare Oladipo 6, Justin Kang 7, Gavin Gibson 2, Damian Smith 10,.