BLUE WAVES 63, BULLS 54
In the opening seconds of Tuesday’s home game against Smithtown East, Riverhead senior Markim Austin caught a pass on a fastbreak from teammate Ryan Bitzer and layed the ball in to give the Blue Waves a quick 2-0 advantage.
It was the only basket of the first half for Austin, who was held scoreless over the next 15-plus minutes as the Blue Waves’ sluggish offense left them in a nine-point halftime hole.
“Our first half shot selection and team play wasn’t where it needed to be,” said Riverhead coach John Rossetti.
Austin needed only 13 seconds again at the start of the third quarter to get to the free-throw line and give the Blue Waves two points. Only this time, the points kept coming.
Austin lit up the Riverhead High School gym for 15 points in the third quarter, including four 3-pointers, to rally the Blue Waves to a 63-54 victory. The win kept the Blue Waves perfect in League III at 5-0 heading into two crucial match-ups against the final two teams they’ve yet to face in league.
The Blue Waves turned an 11-point third quarter deficit into a 15-point lead late in the fourth quarter. Austin finished with 20 points, three shy of his season high. His four treys also matched a season-high.
“We just came together as a team [in the second half],” Austin said.
Austin gravitated toward the left side of the court on offense and his teammates kept finding him open at his sweet spots. He drained a 3-pointer from the corner to bring the Blue Waves within one midway through the third. Shortly after, Bitzer (13 points) pump-faked away from a defender, took a dribble in and sank a long two-pointer to give Riverhead its first lead since early in the first quarter.
It was a lead they wouldn’t relinquish again.
[Austin] is a good shooter and sometimes good shooters go through a little dry spell,” Rossetti said. “But he maintained his poise, he knocked down good shots and that loosened them up, which gave everyone else better looks.”
At 6-foot-2, Austin can be a challenge for smaller guards to defend on the perimeter.
“He’s a tall, long guard so you can’t just put a little kid on him,” Rossetti said. “It creates mismatches.”
While Austin lit it up from outside, junior Jeremiah Cheatom, who’s only 6 feet, hustled his way to 18 points, mostly by grabbing rebounds and fighting in the paint.
Cheatom scored Riverhead’s first eight points of the fourth quarter as the lead ballooned to nine.
Rossetti said Cheatom has been a “workhorse” all season.
“He’s got a nose for the ball,” Rossetti said. “What’s he doing nicely is absorbing the contact, going up strong and making the layups.”
The Blue Waves don’t have a player over 6-2 in their rotation, so the hustle plays of Cheatom to grab rebounds is a huge bonus. He was credited witha team-high 15 against the Bulls.
“Those are hard-work points,” Rossetti said of Cheatom’s second-chance points off rebounds. “That’s the way he is. He’s a hard-working kid.”
Riverhead couldn’t get anything to fall in the second quarter as Smithtown closed out on a 6-0 run for a 29-20 halftime lead. The Blue Waves shot 3 of 18 (17 percent) in the quarter. But it was a different story in the third as the Blue Waves connected on 10 of 19 (53 percent). At one point the Blue Waves hit five straight shots, which included a pair of treys from Austin.
“They made better decisions in the second half and good decisions lead to better shot opportunities, which resulted in good baskets,” Rossetti said.
At 8-1 overall, the Blue Waves have been one of the bigger surprises in League III. Now, the schedule toughens.
After a day off, Riverhead will travel to Smithtown West Thursday and North Babylon Tuesday. Both teams were thought to finish near the top of the league before the season.
A pair of wins would not only clinch a playoff spot for Riverhead, but clearly assert the Blue Waves as the favorites to win the league before the start of the second half of the league season.
Rossetti didn’t want to look that far ahead just yet, but merely try to get his team through Smithtown West first.
“We put ourselves in a position where we want to be,” Rossetti said.
The Blue Waves lead North Babylon and Smithtown West by one game in the standings.
“We got to keep moving forward and work hard,” Austin said.