The timer ticked down in Ryan Bitzer’s head as he caught a pass from Markin Austin at the top of three three-point line.
“I knew I only had a couple seconds to put it up, so I thought why not put it up while I have room,” said the Riverhead junior.
Bitzer dribbled in, took a quick step back and unleashed a 3-pointer from straightaway that swished through the net with 55 seconds left for the decisive hoop in Riverhead’s 56-51 victory at Centereach Tuesday night.
After trailing by 14 with under a minute left in the third quarter, the Blue Waves rallied in the fourth in a do-or-die situation to clinch a spot in the Class AA playoffs for the second straight year. Through all the turnovers, missed free throws, missed layups and air balls, the Blue Waves persevered long enough to give themselves a chance to make one last run on the Cougars. They closed out the game on an 11-1 run to set themselves up for an outbracket playoff game Friday against an opponent to be determined Thursday when the brackets are released.
“We have ‘spurtability,’ ” said Riverhead coach John Rossetti. “We have sessions where we can drop seven, eight, nine points in 40 seconds.”
The Blue Waves desperately needed a streak like that early in the fourth quarter as they trailed 42-32 against a team that has only won three games all year. Their season on the line, the Blue Waves finally got a spark when Austin (16 points) drained a 3-pointer from the left corner early in the fourth. It sparked a 7-0 run in less than 40 seconds to quickly make it a one-possession game.
“We knew we would make a run, but we didn’t think it would happen that late until the fourth quarter,” Bitzer said.
Bitzer scored on an offensive rebound with 3:16 left to close the Cougars’ lead to 50-47. After two costly missed free throws from the Cougars, the Blue Waves got out on the break and Reggie Moore converted the basket plus a foul. While he missed the free throw, the Blue Waves were back within one.
Austin put the Blue Waves (8-10, 6-6 League III) back ahead 51-50 with a runner off the glass 20 seconds later. It was the first lead for Riverhead since early in the second quarter.
“We induced a lot of turnovers in the fourth quarter, the tempo of the game turned our way,” Rossetti said. “We live and breathe by the way Reggie plays and he’s a pit bull out there. When he starts creating stuff and his defense starts turning people over, it really makes us go.”
The Blue Waves forced eight turnovers in the fourth quarter to help turn the game around. They held a two-point lead with over a minute to go, when after about 25 seconds ran off the shot clock, Rossetti called a time-out to try to regroup the team on an important possession.
The Blue Waves set a screen to free up Bitzer. After a pass to Austin, he got the ball back just in time to sink his clutch 3-pointer to give him 10 points on the night.
“We’ve rode him a lot this year,” Rossetti said. “It was a big shot at a big time. Throughout this season he’s hit big shots at big times.”
The Blue Waves still needed stops on defense and they benefitted from some woeful free-throw shooting by the Cougars. Centereach (3-15, 2-10) missed four of five from the line in the final 43 seconds. For the game the Cougars shot 9 of 21 (43 percent). The Blue Waves got to the line 30 times and connected on 17 for a 57 percent clip.
Quinn Funn sank one of two with 28.8 left in the game for Riverhead to help close the game out.
“Our teammates really stepped up in the fourth,” Bitzer said. “I got to give my team a lot of credit for hanging there and making a lot of plays.”
The game was tied at 12 after the first quarter. Things quickly unraveled in the second. The Blue Waves committed seven turnovers while shooting 1 of 10 from the field.
“We were getting frustrated, making some bad passes,” Bitzer said. “It all just came down to the fourth quarter where we stepped our game up.”
The Blue Waves have played the last four games without Jalen Shelby, a transfer from Greenport. Shelby decided to leave the team, Rossetti said. Shelby was a starter for Riverhead who played big minutes and gave the team another 3-point threat. The Blue Waves are 2-2 in those games.