There’s no real secret to playing in pressure situations, according to sisters Ava and Alexa Therien.

The two aren’t stoic before Cherokee’s big games, but they’re not wildly psyching each other up, either. They say they’re more likely to be making each other laugh, easing the tension before they hit the court.

“If anything, we try not to think about it,” Ava Therien said. “You can’t come out nervous. You have to relax. You can’t think about what could go wrong. We crack a few jokes, listen to music and tell each other that we have to win this game.”

“Our dad specialized in playing big games,” Alexa Therien added. The Theriens are daughters of former Flyers defenseman Chris Therien and the sisters of former Cherokee star Izzy Therien. “He tells us all the time that we need to show up for the big games, but we know we have to keep the same mind-set every game, no matter who the opponent is.”

The approach has worked.

The Theriens and the Cherokee girls’ basketball team have elevated their play in nearly every one of their big games over the last two seasons.

Most recently, the Chiefs (18-4) raised some eyebrows around the state with a 54-33 trouncing of Trenton Catholic on Jan. 26. TCA was ranked No. 7 in the state at the time.

Sisters Alexa Therien (left) and Ava Therien (right) work together at practice for the Cherokee High School girls' basketball team on Wednesday.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Sisters Alexa Therien (left) and Ava Therien (right) work together at practice for the Cherokee High School girls' basketball team on Wednesday.

On Friday night, Cherokee will take on Moorestown Friends (15-4) in the semifinals of the South Jersey Invitational Basketball Tournament at Eastern.

With a win, Cherokee would defend its tournament title in a championship game against the winner of Rancocas Valley (12-10) vs. Bishop Eustace (14-5) on Sunday at Eastern.

“We love this tournament. It’s fun, it’s great experience and we want to defend our title,” Ava Therien said.

This is the 10-year anniversary of the tournament that brings together the area’s top teams from all counties and all groups.

“The quality level of the teams we attract year in and year out, including our showcase games, has grown exponentially over the years — it’s more than I could have ever imagined,” director Mike Hallahan said of the 24-team tournament.

The Chiefs enter Friday night as the clear-cut No. 1 team in South Jersey. The Theriens form a lethal high-low tandem, and most teams in the area simply can’t match up with the pair’s size, speed and grit. Ava, a 5-foot-10 senior guard, averages 12.5 points per game. Alexa, a 6-1 sophomore forward, averages 11.5.

But what really has separated the Chiefs this year is the play of the Theriens’ supporting cast. Kennedy Wilburn, a junior wing, looks like an All-South Jersey caliber player. Other Chiefs have proved to be competent shooters in big spots, and every player on the team appears to excel on defense.

“I think, defensively, we’re playing really well right now — and offensively, we’re getting contributions from a lot of different players, which is important,” said coach Ron Powell.

Last year, Cherokee took a tough loss to Bishop Eustace in the regular season just before turning around and winning the SJIBT and South Jersey Group 4.

The Chiefs are hoping their 35-33 loss to rival Lenape on Jan. 10 served a similar purpose this year. Powell said the Lenape loss wasn’t a “happy time” for the team, and neither was the following day’s practice. And it didn’t take Cherokee long to avenge the loss. The Chiefs beat Lenape, 54-42, last week to all but seal the Olympic Conference American Division title.

“The loss was definitely a game where we realized we needed to pick it up,” Ava Therien said. “But once you lose, you get kind of angry, you have kind of a chip on your shoulder. We wanted to get back on track — and we did. Now we just have to keep it going,”

South Jersey Invitational Basketball Tournament

At Eastern High

Friday

Bishop Eustace vs. Rancocas Valley, 6:30 p.m.

Cherokee vs. Moorestown Friends, 8:30 p.m.

Sunday

Championship, 4:30 p.m.