CLASS AA FIRST ROUND | LIONS 61, BLUE WAVES 51
The loss itself stung.
The missed opportunity hurt even worse.
A pile of jerseys lay on the floor inside the locker room Friday night for the final time this season as coach John Rossetti reflected on the Blue Waves’ 61-51 first-round playoff loss to Longwood in front of a capacity crowd at Riverhead High School.
“I feel like I let the community down today,” Rossetti said.
A few minutes later, when Rossetti learned No. 4 Central Islip had been upset by No. 20 Huntington, he slammed his right hand onto the bench, the frustration boiling over. If the Blue Waves had pulled out a win against the Lions, another home game would have awaited Tuesday against the lowest-ranked team in the Class AA bracket.
Instead, it’ll be the Lions (12-6) advancing with an unexpected home game in the quarterfinals.
For the Blue Waves, the quick exit out of the playoffs marked the end of a remarkable season that saw them win their first league championship since 1997.
“I told [the players] after the game, it’s going to sting for a little bit,” Rossetti said. “But when these kids look back on their careers when they’re 10 years out of high school, no one can take away from them that they’re league champs. That’s going to last with them forever.”
Even as a No. 5 seed, the Blue Waves (15-4) faced an arduous task in the first round against a battle-tested Longwood team that went 8-5 in arguably the most competitive league in the county. Brentwood and William Floyd also advanced into the quarterfinals.
And the Lions know a thing or two about winning in the postseason. Friday’s win marked the eighth straight year they’ve advanced into the quarterfinals. In that time they’ve played in two county finals (’09, ’10). The Lions knocked off the Blue Waves in the first round in 2011 as well before advancing to the semifinals.
“A lot of pride,” said Longwood coach Pierce Hayes, whose team had opened the playoffs at home in each of the past seven seasons. “Coming out of League I, which was awesome this year, I mean everybody was good.”
The Lions jumped out on Riverhead with a 10-0 run to open the game and the Blue Waves could never close the gap all the way.
All season the Blue Waves have played their best in the third quarter, and they needed another big one Friday. In what was a wildly entertaining quarter, the Blue Waves trimmed the deficit down to three going into the fourth at 45-42 when junior Brandon Tolliver sank a pair of free throws with :36.9 left.
“Usually that third quarter surge we carry over into the fourth,” Rossetti said. “But I think we hit a wall.”
Longwood opened up the fourth on a 9-2 run, capped by a 3-pointer from Latrell Washington, who had a huge day with 21 points. He drilled another corner three to seal the victory with 2:03 left that extended the Lions’ lead to 15, the largest of the night.
“They’re a very good team,” Hayes said. “We kind of wore them down a bit. But they never quit.”
The Lions looked to push the pace against Riverhead, and Washington ignited the offense.
“That was our game plan,” Hayes said. “Our guards are our strength. We like to get the ball down the court and get it off quick.”
Longwood shot 6-for-17 (35 percent) from beyond the arc. Washington, who hit seven in a 32-point game to end the regular season, connected on four treys. Emmanuel Ferreira hit the other two as part of his 21-point game. Riverhead shot 1-for-10 from three.
The Lions have averaged 5.2 threes per game.
“We take a lot of threes, but we don’t always make them like today,” Hayes said. “Today we were on. The kids were focused.”
The Blue Waves got a team-high 14 points from senior Markim Austin and 11 from senior Ryan Bitzer. Tolliver added eight and Jeremiah Cheatom had seven. The loss snapped a six-game win streak for Riverhead.
The teams combined for 40 points in the third quarter. The Blue Waves were able to get out in transition some and beat Longwood’s press to get a few easy hoops. In one flurry, Washington converted a three-point play before Austin answered on the other end with a three-point play of his own five seconds later to get the Blue Waves back within four.
“You got to give them credit,” Rossetti said. “They hit open shots. In games like this it’s the team that hits the open shots that’s going to win.”
Longwood handed Riverhead its worst loss of the regular season Dec. 8, 60-41. But the Lions knew that game wasn’t a fair representation of what the Blue Waves look like now. Three of Riverhead’s starters were only a week off of football season for that game.
Hayes said maintaing the lead during each of Riverhead’s runs Friday came down to toughness.
“That’s always been our quest this year — to be a tough team,” he said. “We haven’t always lived up to that expectation, but tonight we did.”