GARRET MEADE FILE PHOTO | Riverhead senior Markim Austin rises for one-handed dunk that put the Blue Waves ahead by seven in the fourth quarter against Smithtown West.
The Riverhead boys basketball team entered the 2012-13 season with lofty expectations as an experienced core of players returned. And the Blue Waves didn’t disappoint, posting a 12-2 record in League III and clinching the program’s first league title since 1997.
It was a thrilling season throughout, highlighted by a 72-71 victory over Smithtown West early in February that guaranteed the Blue Waves at least a share of the league title.
Riverhead got 20 points from Markim Austin in the win in front of a near-capacity crowd at Riverhead High School. The Blue Waves’ season ended on a bitter note with a loss to Longwood in the first round of the playoffs, but the season nevertheless was one to remember.
GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Riverhead senior Markim Austin rises for one-handed dunk Tuesday that put the Blue Waves ahead by seven in the fourth quarter against Smithtown West.
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.
ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead senior Markim Austin scored a game-high 20 points against Smithtown East Tuesday night.
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.