BLUE WAVES 72, BULLS 71
Amid the euphoria of a jubilant Riverhead locker room Tuesday night, coach John Rossetti delivered a simple message to his players.
The job isn’t done yet.
They’ll hang a banner inside the Riverhead High School gym — the Blue Waves made sure of that with a frantic 72-71 victory over Smithtown West — but one more game remains to make it stand alone.
Riverhead clinched at least a share of the League III title with Tuesday’s come-from-behind victory, the first championship since 1997 and first ever as a Class AA school. The Blue Waves, who swept the season series against the Bulls, can clinch the outright league title with a win Thursday at home against North Babylon in the final game of the regular season.
“We’re league champs regardless, but we want to finish this strong,” Rossetti said.
The playoffs may not start for another week, but this game had every bit a playoff atmosphere as both teams came in knowing the league title was on the line. The Blue Waves and Bulls entered with identical 10-2 league records. The winner controlled its own destiny for the league title and both teams played like everything was on the line in a fast-paced, up-and-down game that ultimately came down to the final play of the game.
The Blue Waves (14-3, 11-2) overcame giving up a season-high in points and twice fouling a 3-point shooter in the final 40.5 seconds of the game.
“Heart and desire,” said Riverhead senior Ryan Bitzer, who hit a pair clutch 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. “We wanted it so bad. Sixteen years since the last league championship and we really wanted it.”
A fired-up crowd created an electric atmosphere and senior Markim Austin sent the fans into a frenzy when he threw down a one-handed slam on a fastbreak to give the Blue Waves their largest lead of the game at 68-61 midway through the fourth quarter. “I’ve been trying to get a dunk all season, now I finally got it,” Austin said. The dunk came on the heels of a Bitzer 3-pointer and capped a 19-point turnaround from early in the third quarter.
But the Bulls refused to go quietly.
A couple ill-advised fouls allowed the Bulls (13-4, 10-3) to chip away at Riverhead’s lead and a fastbreak layup off a steal from Michael Bairdi pulled the Bulls to within a point with 2:36 left. The Blue Waves answered right back with a fastbreak layin from Quinn Funn, who was fouled on the play but missed the free throw.
[Video: See the final 11 seconds of the game below]
It ultimately set the stage for a bizarre final 40 seconds with Riverhead clinging to a three-point lead.
Smithtown West guard Ryan Hickey — a superb outside shooter who scored 23 points — was fouled on a 3-pointer and had a chance to tie the game. But he missed all three shots. Austin was fouled on the ensuing Riverhead possession and hit both free throws of a one-and-one.
Back came Hickey, hitting a 3-pointer plus a foul again. This time he made the free throw to trim Riverhead’s lead back to one.
Bitzer said the Blue Waves had fouls to give, so they were trying to be aggressive on defense.
“I thought I fouled him before he shot it,” Bitzer said. “But I guess not. We’re just happy to get the win.”
The Bulls still had life after Bitzer missed the front end of a one-and-one with :24.1 left. William Behrens corralled an offensive rebound for Smithtown with :15.6 left and was fouled going up for a shot. He had two free throws with a chance to give the Bulls a lead but missed them both. The Bulls controlled the rebound and called timeout.
The Blue Waves knew where the ball was going.
“We knew Hickey was going to take the shot so we had to double up and pick him up,” Bitzer said.
The Bulls inbounded into the backcourt to Hickey, who got a running start across halfcourt. He curled right of a high screen from Eric Joseph where he faced a double team as Jeremiah Cheatom swarmed him alongside Bitzer. He managed to elude Cheatom before Austin swooped in front to a draw a charge.
Austin heard the whistle blow and “just looked at the ref hoping it was a charge,” he said.
The Blue Waves got the ball with :2.7 left and Bitzer threw a long outlet pass to junior Brandon Tolliver, who caught the ball and held it as the clock ran out.
“It felt like six minutes,” Rossetti said of the final 40 seconds. “That’s high school basketball at its best.”
The Blue Waves had four players in double figures, led by 20 from Austin. Bitzer had 14 while Cheatom and Tolliver added 13.
Riverhead trailed by 10 at halftime and needed another big third quarter to get back into it. That wasn’t a problem as the Blue Waves outscored Smithtown by eight in the quarter.
It was the 11th straight game Riverhead outscored its opponent in the third quarter. Only two teams have outscored the Blue Waves in the third quarter and those games were both in early December.
“That’s been one our team goals all season,” Rossetti said. “We call it a lockdown third.”
In the past 11 games the Blue Waves are +7.6 in the third quarter, by far their most efficient quarter.
“That’s just our mojo, I guess,” Bitzer said.
The final 11 seconds, with Riverhead ahead 72-71: