Shortly after becoming the all-time leading scorer in Lenape boys basketball history during the first month of the 2021-’22 season, senior Derek Simpson was proud of what he had accomplished thus far during his high school career.
A Rutgers-bound point guard next fall, Simpson said he prioritized a high-school career alongside childhood friends and teammates in the pursuit of something special, rather than fleeing to a private school or joining a travel team in preparation for Division-I basketball.
“I wanted to be a part of history in my own hometown, not someone else’s hometown,” Simpson said, after breaking the scoring record in January. “I could have gone to a big private school somewhere else, but that’s not for me. I wanted to make my mark where I live.”
Two months later, Simpson and his fellow teammates celebrated on the court at Cherry Hill East following a 45-33 victory over the Cougars in the South Jersey Group 4 sectional championship game, the program’s first sectional title since 2009.
“It was in due time,” Simpson said. “It was time for Lenape to get another state championship in basketball … This is a special group of guys, coaches and players. Everyone just dug in from the beginning of the season to the end to make this happen.”
The win brings Lenape’s record so far this season to 27-3, before the team’s state semifinals game against Marlboro.
Having shared the Olympic American crown following the end of the regular season, after the two teams split their matchups, the sectional final was sure to bring with it as much intensity as possible between two of the top teams in the state with an awful lot on the line.
The difference for Lenape ended up being senior Tayvon Gaither, who erupted for a career-high 24 points — 14 of which were in the fourth quarter — while also grabbing 11 rebounds. The 6-foot-3 senior scored 21 points in the team’s semifinal round win over Egg Harbor just three days prior to help get the Indians into the championship.
With Gaither having previously scored 11 and 13 points in Lenape’s last two matchups against Cherry Hill East, the Cougars had no answer for stopping him in the final quarter.
“I don’t know if anybody really [has an answer] for that kind of effort: He’s a monster,” said head coach Matt Wolf. “I said after last game he’s like the Incredible Hulk out there … Obviously the moment wasn’t too big for him. He stepped up. It’s pretty unbelievable.
“He wanted the ball in his hands.”
Having lost in the semifinal round of the sectional playoffs to Atlantic City two seasons ago, Gaither said he and his senior teammates were motivated all season by memories of how that loss felt.
“This goes back to sophomore year, when we lost in the third round of the playoffs… We knew it was going to be us three seniors (Gaither, Simpson and Aidan Anderson) with the chance to make up for it with our junior and senior years,” Gaither said. “After not getting these playoffs at all last year and having lost during our sophomore year, it feels amazing to finally get this back, and the journey to get here has been so worth it.”
Gaither’s 14 points in the fourth quarter helped seal the championship game for Lenape, which led by four points after the first three. Back-to-back three-pointers and phenomenal play from underneath the basket left East with a deficit too large to overcome.
For Gaither, a fourth-quarter scoring spree was the result of a change in his mentality after the third.
“It was all mental,” he said. “I saw that at the beginning of the fourth it was real close, and I didn’t like that. I talked to my team and said, ‘We’re gonna win this and I’m locked in, so stay locked in with me,’ and that’s exactly what we did.”