SECTION XI CHAMPIONSHIP GAME | BLUE WAVES 61, MARINERS 59 (OT)
The playoff games involving the various class champions in Suffolk County girls basketball pose a quandary for coaches. Conflicting aims are sometimes at stake. On the one hand, teams want to win, of course. On the other hand, some coaches feel an obligation to give playing time to little-used substitutes. Add to that the fear of injury in advance of more important regional games.
It can be a tricky balance for a coach to manage.
“I hate it,” confessed Riverhead coach Dave Spinella.
And that comment came after Spinella and his team had successfully navigated all of the above concerns on Friday. Not only had Riverhead secured a 61-59 overtime win over Southampton in the Section XI championship game, but the Blue Waves, like the Mariners, played all of their players and evidently survived the game injury-free. In the process, Class AA champion Riverhead (22-1) extended its winning streak to 22 games.
“I didn’t look at this as easy,” Riverhead point guard Jalyn Brown said. “Even though people said it’s really not an important game, I look at every game as an important game. I want to win. … I knew they wanted to win, too.”
Some players from both teams have a shared history of playing together on an Amateur Athletic Union team. Southampton coach Rich Wingfield spoke before the game of a photo he has of one such team that featured four of his current players and four current Riverhead players. So, familiarity was a factor.
“It’s weird playing against them because I know their game and they know mine,” Brown said. “They know what I do on the court and I know what they do on the court.”
But there was one question, the answer to which was unknown before the tip-off at Farmingdale State College’s Nold Hall: How much would the teams pull their punches?
Spinella said his starters played half the game. That included the five-minute overtime period in which Brown and Shanice Allen combined for all 8 Riverhead points.
A deep 3-point shot by Brown snapped a 55-55 tie, but Class B champion Southampton (19-4) took the lead at 59-58 on back-to-back baskets by Kesi Goree. Goree had a tremendous game with 31 points and 14 rebounds, both game-high figures. “My confidence was up,” she said.
But Allen immediately responded for Riverhead, making a layup with 19 seconds left for a 60-59 Riverhead edge.
Southampton called a timeout and set up a play in which Paris Hodges drove in on Allen and pushed a shot off the bottom of the backboard. Riverhead’s Melodee Riley collected the rebound.
Later, after Brown missed the front end of a one-and-one, Southampton stopped the clock with a timeout with 3.3 seconds to go. A Goree inbounds pass from near her basket was intercepted around midcourt by Allen, who was quickly fouled with 1.8 seconds remaining. Allen sank one of the two free throws for the final point.
Allen was mistakenly credited with 32 points on the scoreboard. She didn’t score that many, but she didn’t do badly, putting up 19. The junior was selected to the county’s all-tournament team along with Brown (18 points, 5 assists). Riley added 12 points and fell one rebound shy of a double-double. Kaila-Riane Nazario pulled down 11 rebounds.
Hodges posted 13 points and 8 assists.
Riverhead had raced out to an 8-0 lead and held a 20-6 advantage early in the second quarter. The Blue Waves also had a 14-point cushion when an Alyssa Meyer basket made it 32-18 late in the second quarter.
“We were getting blown out, basically,” Goree said. “A lot of teams would have just gave up, but my team, we’re like a family. We have heart.”
Riverhead substituted heavily in the third quarter, which was its worst shooting quarter, going 4 of 15 from the field. Southampton pulled to within single digits. A 12-0 Southampton run trimmed Riverhead’s lead to 41-38. The Mariners completed the fourth quarter on a 16-8 spurt, with a ball from Goree bouncing in to knot the score at 53-53 and force overtime.
Things would have been easier for Riverhead if it had shot better than 6 of 16 from the free-throw line. Then again, Southampton didn’t fare too well with its free throws, either, going 5 of 12.
The fact that all the players got an opportunity to play on a college court might not have been first and foremost on the minds of fans, but it was meaningful to the participants.
“People don’t understand,” Spinella said. “Our allegiance is to the kids. We want to make sure that our kids realize that every single one of them is a special part of this team.”
Bigger challenges await both teams. Riverhead will play Baldwin or Massapequa in a Southeast Region final on March 9 at Farmingdale State College. The winner will advance to the New York State final four in Troy. Southampton will play a regional semifinal against Cold Spring Harbor on Wednesday night in Farmingdale.
Obviously, those are elimination games and the stakes are higher. Still, that doesn’t mean a player like Brown didn’t appreciate coming out on top on Friday.
“I’m a competitor,” she said. “I love to win.”