SOUTHEAST REGION CLASS AA FINAL | BLUE WAVES 56, BRUINS 50
After posing for a celebratory team photo, Melodee Riley nearly dropped the championship plaque as she rose to her feet, but she managed to grab it in time. “This thing is heavy,” she said.
Riley didn’t let the plaque slip through her fingers, and Riverhead didn’t let the Southeast Region Class AA girls basketball title evade its grasp, either.
For the first time in team history, Riverhead will play in a New York State final four. The Blue Waves made their dream a reality Friday night by defeating Baldwin, 56-50, in the regional final, which also amounted to a Long Island championship. Thanks to its 23rd straight win, Riverhead (23-1) will play in a state semifinal next Friday night at Hudson Valley County Community College in Troy. It will play either Penfield of Section V or Lockport of Section VI.
“We’re making history,” Riverhead shooting guard Shanice Allen said after the triumph at Farmingdale State College. “It’s exciting.”
Riverhead point guard Jalyn Brown, speaking to reporters afterward, put it in perspective. “This is the greatest accomplishment so far in my life,” she said. “My goals that I’ve been wanting since the eighth grade are happening. I thank God every day. I thank the community, family, and especially this team.”
Allen, who like her teammates was asked by fans to autograph mock front pages of the Riverhead News-Review reporting that Riverhead was headed to the final four, said she felt like a celebrity. It’s no wonder. The Blue Waves have been embraced by their town for what they have achieved this season.
The game, played in a loud gym with plenty of supporters for both sides, featured eight tied scores and six lead changes. The last of those came when Kaila-Riane Nazario drained two free throws to put Riverhead ahead to stay, 50-48, with 1 minute 22 seconds left in the game. Nazario shot 5 for 6 from the foul line in the final 1:22 and 7 for 8 for the game.
A layup by Baldwin’s Alexandra Hampton (8 of 17 field-goal attempts, 20 points) pulled Baldwin to within 52-50. But after Allen made a free throw for a 3-point lead, Hampton dribbled the ball off her foot with 21.7 seconds to go. The Bruins were forced to foul and send Riverhead to the foul line. Brown knocked down two free throws and Nazario made another as the Blue Waves iced the victory.
Playing the biggest game of their lives, the Blue Waves faced perhaps their toughest test yet in Baldwin (19-2), a team that like Riverhead knows how to win. Baldwin, the winner of three straight Nassau County championships, is ranked sixth in the state; Riverhead is ranked ninth.
Baldwin is similar to Riverhead — fast and tough.
“That’s what our coach was saying,” Nazario said. “He said, ‘They’re exactly like us,’ so we were basically playing ourselves.”
But the Blue Waves had Riley on their side. Riley played like a player possessed, refusing to lose. The high-flying senior forward put up 18 points, 14 rebounds (10 offensive), 3 steals and 3 blocks.
“This is the best I’ve ever seen her play,” Allen said of Riley.
Riley said modestly, “I just played, nothing special.”
But Riley was a difference-maker. Riverhead coach Dave Spinella figured that his team’s advantage over Baldwin was in the speed of its forwards, and that proved true.
Another forward, Nazario, scored 11 points, as did Allen. Brown registered 9 points and 5 assists.
Amber Harrison, the other big gun in the Baldwin lineup next to Hampton, struck for 15 points. Mariah Butler added 8 points and 5 assists.
The Bruins, who held a 41-29 superiority in rebounding, received 14 boards from Ayanna Hudson and 10 from Janae De’Graff, who fouled out with 5:08 to go in the game.
Riverhead could have been under no misunderstanding about the quality of its opponent by the time it had called a timeout with 5:57 left in the second quarter and Baldwin in front, 19-10.
But the timeout apparently did Riverhead some good. The Blue Waves scored the next 9 points, including a layup by Allen that tied the score at 19-19.
But a basket by Harrison and a pair of free throws by Hampton, sandwiched around a Riley free throw, gave Baldwin a 23-20 edge by the half.
When it came to crunch time down the stretch, though, Riverhead was ready.
“The experience helps,” Spinella said. “These kids have been together a long time, and they know what to do when it counts.”
One thing Riverhead wasn’t ready to do was lose.
“Oh my God. I thought it was about to be over, but you know, it’s not,” Riley said. “We’re not done.”