Saleem Payne (above) provided a key spark off the bench yet again for Cheltenham to help the Panthers get past CB West. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
All season long, Cheltenham head coach Pat Fleury has had the same response when asked about sophomore guard Justin Moore: don’t forget about Saleem Payne. Though Moore was the one who took over the point guard duties when D-I signee Zahree Harrison went down in the season opener with a knee injury that cost him the entire season, Payne also moved into an integral role for the Panthers, as the team’s sixth man.
So whenever Harrison’s absence and Moore’s play were brought up, Fleury made sure to mention Payne, and the other sophomore’s importance to Cheltenham’s league, district, and state championship hopes this season.
In a Suburban One-League semifinal Saturday afternoon at Bensalem, Payne showed just why he’s such a crucial piece for Fleury and the Panthers. The speedy guard was one of several players who provided a big-time spark off the bench as Cheltenham outlasted Central Bucks West, 52-43, to advance to Monday night’s league championship game.
“I come in and try to pick up the energy, play defense, get buckets,” Payne said afterwards. “Get my team involved. That’s been my role the whole season, basically.”
He did just that in the second quarter, coming off the bench in a game that was knotted up after one and instantly put Cheltenham (21-2) ahead with a mid-range jumper and then a 3-pointer. Payne, Moore and classmate Rasheem Deary combined for 17 of Cheltenham’s 18 points that quarter, with Payne (7 points) and Deary (6 points) scoring all of their 13 in that stanza.
By halftime, Cheltenham’s lead had expanded to seven, and they didn’t trail the rest of the way.
On a day where the Panthers’ senior standouts –– Rider-bound wing Jalen McGlone (9 points/4 rebounds) and emerging forward Sean Emfinger (8 points/4 steals/3 rebounds) –– weren’t putting up their usual numbers, it was the sophomores that got Cheltenham within one win of its first-ever overall Suburban One League title since the league launched its first postseason tournament in 2015.
“I said it the other day, the sophomore class has a lot of budding stars there,” Fleury said. “It’s just a testament to them continuing to stay hungry and wanting to get better. We’re very confident in Rasheem Dearry, Saleem Payne and all of the sophomore class –– really all of our players, but they don’t necessarily get as much of the press.”
Payne, a 5-foot-9 point guard, has been the first guard off the bench for the majority of the season, Fleury taking advantage of his ability to both run the point and get his own shot. Though he’s the smallest guard in the rotation, he’s also one of the team’s toughest defenders, and Fleury often uses him in on the opponents’ best player, such as how he guarded CB West’s Mika Munari after the lefty scored 10 of his game-high 20 points in the first quarter.
There’s no denying that if Cheltenham’s going to make a deep run, it’s going to need quality play out of Payne, a role he wasn’t planning on filling in the preseason but has adjusted to nicely during the year.
“I had to pick it up, I had to turn it up, because we want to win a state championship,” Payne said. “We definitely needed Zahree, he was a big help to us, so I had to step up and play a bigger role.”
Moore, a 6-2 guard and Division I prospect who’s been one of the Panthers’ leaders this season, finished with a team-high 17 points in the win over CB West (15-8). He scored nine of those in the fourth quarter, going 7-of-7 from the foul line down the stretch to help the Panthers seal the win.
“There’s extreme confidence in Justin Moore,” Fleury said. “So yes, i’m very confident with Justin at the end, at the line, but whoever it is, I think we have a decent shot of converting.”
The first matchup this season between the Panthers and Bucks was certainly a contrast in styles. Adam Sherman’s West squads always slow it down and value good shots, and they were an efficient 16-of-26 (.615) from the floor. But the aggressive Panthers forced 15 turnovers to get up and down the court, shooting 18-of-44 (.409), going for quantity over quality at points.
“We have a little bit of everything in our game right now, or at least try to practice against every style [...] we’re very confident in any style that we have to play,” Fleury said. “This (was) two different teams playing and I feel like that’s the case with everybody at this point, everybody is focused on getting better and everybody is focused on improving as a unit and being sharp at what they do.”
In Monday night’s championship game at Council Rock South (7:30 PM), Cheltenham gets Pennridge (17-6), which followed up with a convincing win over Bensalem to earn its first spot in the SOL title game. No matter what happens, the Panthers will be one of the top seeds in the District 1 6A tournament which starts next week, with a bye in the first round and a home game in the second round, just a win away from qualifying for states.
“I’m excited, ready to get the ‘dub,’” Payne said. “We’re going to go in, do what we do.”
CB West: 12 | 11 | 9 | 11 | 43
Cheltenham: 12 | 18 | 10 | 12 | 52
CB West: 16-26 FG, 2-9 3PT, 9-13 FT
Cheltenham: 18-44 FG, 4-16 3PT, 12-19 FT
CB West: Munari 20, Neri 12, Miller 7, Henry 2, Slaymaker 2
Cheltenham: Moore 17, McGlone 9, Emfinger 8, Payne 7, Dearry 6, Coleman 3, Scott 2