WILDWOOD - The Absegami High School boys basketball team made a run at Cherokee during the fourth quarter of their game at Wildwoods Convention Center on Thursday.
But Cherokee kept its cool and the lead in a nearly perfectly executed slowdown in the Ernie Troiano Sr. Memorial Bracket semifinal game at the Boardwalk Basketball Classic. With Absegami forced to foul, the Chiefs made 11-of-12 free throws in the final 3 minutes.
Cherokee took the lead for good in third quarter and held on to win 57-49.
Cherokee (3-2) will play Woodbury at 2:15 p.m. today in the bracket championship game. Woodbury topped Cedar Creek 55-46 in the other semifinal Thursday. Absegami (1-4) will face Cedar Creek at 12:30 p.m. today in the consolation game.
"We tried to be a little more patient (in the third quarter) and get into the middle of their defense and not just pass the ball around the perimeter," Cherokee coach Matt Shultz said.
"A lot came off our pressure and we were able to get easy shots. We got to the foul line (six times in the last three minutes of the fourth quarter) and made our foul shots to keep them an arm's length away."
Absegami fell behind 46-35 early in the fourth quarter but went on a seven-point run. Vinnie Nelson hit 1-of-2 from the line, and teammate Darryl Loveland made a field goal. Nelson picked up a loose ball near the basket and scored. Absegami's 6-foot-9 Vlad Shustov took an inbounds pass and made it 46-42 underneath with four minutes left.
Cherokee immediately went into a slowdown, and Kyle Kahringer twice sank two free throws to make it 50-42 with 2:17 left.
Cherokee's Kevin Wixted scored 18 points and had six steals, four rebounds and three assists. Teammate Anthony Fioravanti added 10 points. Kahringer, who is typically the Chiefs' leading scorer, was held without a point for three quarters but hit 7-of-8 from the line in the fourth quarter.
"Kevin really carried us," Shultz said. "He was energetic on the defensive end. He put us on his back and got us through on a poor shooting day." Cherokee made just 17-of-42 shots (40.4 percent) from the field.
Shustov, a senior who is originally from Siberia, hit 9-of-13 field goals and led all scorers with 21 points. Absegami's Jaleel Christmon shot 5-of-9 from the floor and had 12 points. Loveland finished with six points and a team-high five rebounds, and Abdul Anderson had five assists.
"Cherokee is a solid team. They didn't turn the ball over," Absegami coach Mike Bult said. "We've got some work to do, on taking care of the ball and being mentally tough. We're not playing four quarters of a game. ... We've had a tough schedule in the beginning of the year."
The Braves began their season with a win over Lower Cape May Regional (79-29) and then lost to Shawnee (58-38), Holy Spirit (66-42) and Atlantic City (87-50) before Thursday's game. A.C. is ranked No. 1 in The Press Elite 11 and Holy Spirit is fourth.
"Hopefully, we're learning from our losses, and we're looking to go on a run," Bult said. "No game is easy in the (Cape-Atlantic League). You've got to be ready for anything."
Shustov scored 13 points in the first half, which ended in a 26-26 tie.
"We played tough, but we had our ups and downs," said Shustov, an 18-year-old senior and Galloway Township resident who came to America two years ago. "They (Cherokee) definitely handled the ball well and they put pressure on us."
Contact Guy Gargan:
Absegami 9 17 9 14-49
Cherokee 8 18 17 14-57
A-Anderson 1 0-0 2, Shustov 9 2-4 21, Loveland 2 2-4 6, Christmon 5 2-3 12, Nelson 2 1-2 5, Green 0 3-4 3. Totals-19 10-17 49.
C-Fioravanti 1 8-9 10, Kahringer 0 7-8 7, Wixted 6 5-7 18, Powell 1 0-0 2, Douglas 4 0-0 8, Max 1 0-0 2, Belamy 1 0-2 2, Cunningham 1 0-0 3, Thompson 2 1-2 5. Totals-17 21-28 57.
3-pointers-Shustov A. Wixted, Cunningham C.
Records-Cherokee 3-2; Absegami 1-4.