Team is the theme.
It has worked so far for the Riverhead boys basketball team, which snatched the 19th and final seed in the Suffolk County Class AA Tournament by defeating Centereach on the final day of the regular season. And then, on Friday, teamwork came into play once again as Riverhead cleared its first playoff hurdle with an outbracket win over No. 14 West Babylon.
Yet, for all that team play, there was a standout performance by Ryan Bitzer. The junior guard drilled seven 3-point shots and struck for a career-high 27 points in a 73-62 victory at West Babylon High School.
In keeping with the team theme, Bitzer, whose previous high game was 25 points, said: “It was all about my teammates getting me open. They set great screens for me. Luckily enough for me, my shots were falling down, but I got to give it to my teammates for setting me great picks and getting me open.”
It was the first playoff win for Riverhead coach John Rossetti, who has taken the Blue Waves to the postseason four times in his five years in charge, but had lost his first three playoff games.
Riverhead (9-10) has little time to celebrate, though. The Blue Waves have less than 24 hours before they hit the court again on Saturday for a 2 p.m. tip-off at No. 3 Deer Park (15-3), the League IV co-champion, in a first-round matchup.
It looked like Riverhead was going to have its hands full with West Babylon (10-9), a county finalist last year. Mike Richardson knocked down five 3-pointers in the first half and Tori Penn, a senior center, was swatting shots away like flies. The 6-foot-6 Penn had 5 blocks in the first half, which ended with Riverhead up, 33-29.
Richardson’s shooting cooled off a bit in the second half when he had 5 of his 22 points. Penn was a factor throughout, collecting 18 points, 13 rebounds and 8 blocks. Unique Ford chipped in 11 points, and Rashaad Cooper pulled down 10 rebounds.
But Bitzer was wearing a Riverhead uniform, and he was on, sinking shots, scrambling for loose balls, and protecting the ball well (Riverhead limited itself to 11 turnovers, five less than West Babylon).
“The Bitzer kid had a great game,” West Babylon coach Tim Lynch said. “He’s a great shooter and a great player.”
Bitzer also showed coolness under fire. Playoff game or no playoff game, he does not get rattled easily.
“He’s in high-pressure situations all the time, so he’s used to it,” Rossetti said. “Obviously he played very well, but you know what? He was the product of his teammates. He’s a great kid, a great player, and I’m happy for him, but more importantly I’m happy for Riverhead.”
Riverhead took the lead for good when Markin Austin (13 points) hit a 3-pointer from the corner, snapping a 21-21 tie in the second quarter. A 14-0 run bridging the second and third quarters made it 45-29.
The Blue Waves were off and running.
“Tonight we executed so well,” said Brandon Tolliver, the Riverhead sophomore forward who tangled under the boards with Penn and produced 12 points and 13 rebounds. “We were trying to get the ball to Ryan Bitzer a little bit and trying to get down low so we could draw fouls on the big man. It worked out both ways.”
Riverhead managed to hold off West Babylon despite playing the final 5 minutes 23 seconds without its starting center, Tim Clement, who fouled out.
But 16 of Bitzer’s points were scored in the second half, and they came in handy. The Blue Waves made 52.3 percent of their shots from the field, including 10 of 18 3-point attempts, but they also brought plenty of energy to the floor. They outrebounded West Babylon, 41-34.
“This team came today and they didn’t back down,” Rossetti said. “It was a physical game, an aggressive game, and they were bigger than us, but you don’t measure a team by the size of their body, you measure it by the size of their heart, and we brought a lot of heart today.”
Lynch, asked what was the difference in the game, pointed to effort. “Riverhead won their last game to get in [the playoffs] and they were a hungry team, and we didn’t match their energy today,” he said. “That’s what we needed to do. … I told the kids after the game that they beat us the way we’ve been beating teams. They worked harder than we did. Every rebound was theirs, every loose ball was theirs. We can’t play that way for us to be successful.”
Players said they could sense more was at stake in this playoff game than in a typical regular-season contest.
The intensity was seen on two occasions in the third quarter. Austin and West Babylon’s Chris Miller were quickly separated during a confrontation with 3:44 left in the quarter. Then fans started hollering, and Rossetti walked into the stands to talk to one Riverhead supporter, who moments later was apparently ejected from the gym to the applause of West Babylon fans. That fan later returned into the stands and watched the remainder of the game. Then, with 2:43 to go in the quarter, Clement and West Babylon’s Justin Fitzpatrick came close to a scuffle while on the floor together scrambling for the ball.
All that didn’t matter to the Blue Waves when it was over. For them, the important thing was that they had another day to play.
“A lot of people were doubting us,” Bitzer said. “Even everyone in our own school was doubting us, but we knew we had a good team and we knew we would bring it today.”