WILDCATS 59, PHANTOMS 49
It was less than a month ago, and yet it must feel like it was another lifetime for the Shoreham-Wading River boys basketball team.
At the time, the Wildcats had a 2-5 record in Suffolk County League VI. Their season was on the verge of collapse, their playoff hopes slipping away with every loss. “I was concerned because we really were not playing good basketball,” said coach Kevin Culhane, who told his players at the time that the team had reached a crossroads.
It looked as if the Wildcats had a mountain to climb, but they somehow managed to turn their season around.
“It was looking dark for us, but we know that with the kids on this team, everyone working hard every day, we could definitely make the playoffs if we buckled down, and we did,” said Shoreham-Wading River center John Kovach.
To call it an unlikely about-face might be selling the Wildcats short, but it was impressive, nonetheless. Shoreham needed to win four of its final five league games in order to qualify for the postseason. The Wildcats won all five and completed their regular season Thursday with a sixth straight win, 59-49 over Bayport-Blue Point.
Two days earlier, on Senior Night at Shoreham-Wading River High School, the Wildcats defeated East Hampton for the win that booked their second straight playoff berth and fourth in six years.
“We really put the trust in each other’s hands,” forward Chris Mahoney said. “We looked each other in the eye and said, ‘We’re going to do this.’ Ever since then, practices have been completely different, even games.”
A season was salvaged and a dream was realized.
“I give the kids all the credit in the world,” Culhane said. “To me it’s amazing. You know what? Teams are struggling to win six games all year. It’s tough. People don’t understand how much work and preparation there is.”
Now the Wildcats (11-7, 7-5) can prepare for the Suffolk Class A Tournament. The playoff brackets are expected to be released next week.
It was Shoreham’s 24-point loss to Bayport last month that may have been the slap in the face that the Wildcats needed. They avenged that defeat on Thursday in convincing fashion. A 15-4 run in the first half, an 11-2 spurt in the third quarter and a 13-2 charge in the fourth quarter helped the Wildcats prevail despite being outrebounded by 34-26 and managing only four offensive rebounds.
But Shoreham canned 7 of 13 attempts from 3-point territory, including two apiece by Kevin Turano, Robbie Bray and Tim Rotanz.
After missing its last nine field-goal attempts of the first quarter, Shoreham knocked down nine of its next 10 for a 35-27 lead early in the third quarter.
Bayport went in front, 37-35, on two free throws by Longo with 4 minutes 25 seconds left in the third quarter. That proved to be Bayport’s last lead of the game. The Phantoms did pull to within 1 point at 46-45 in the fourth quarter before back-to-back 3-pointers by Turano and Sean Condron ignited a 13-2 spell for Shoreham that settled the matter.
Bray and Turano scored 15 points apiece and Kovach added 13, 10 of which came in the first half. Mahoney pulled down 11 rebounds and Rotanz had 6 assists.
Bayport was led by Steve Longo’s 12 points and Alp Akdeniz’s 10. Lucas Jenks, a 6-foot-4 center playing with a facemask to protect a broken nose, got into foul trouble early. He headed to the bench with his third personal foul 27 seconds into the second quarter and picked up his fourth with 3:36 left in the third quarter. Jenks was held to 2 points, but he grabbed 11 rebounds.
It was Senior Night at Bayport, where the Phantoms recognized their three seniors — Akdeniz, Chris Karpi and Longo — in a pregame ceremony in the school’s dark gym. The loss not only spoiled Senior Night for the Phantoms, but complicated their playoff plans. Bayport (7-10, 5-6) needs to win its final regular-season game on Tuesday in Amityville in order to reach the postseason.
So, what has changed with Shoreham over the past month?
“Shots are just going,” Mahoney said. “Everything’s just flowing now. We were the same team; we just weren’t clicking. Now we are.”
Believe and trust.
Those were the words Culhane kept using when talking to his players during this memorable run.
“I’ve been coaching a long time and I told the kids — I got a little emotional — I told them how proud of them I am and how it means a lot to me that they responded, as a coach and as a person,” Culhane said. “And I told them 30 years from now, from an old man like me, they’re going to remember how to get out of a tough situation, to dig in, and they will never forget this team. I know I won’t.”