Riverhead falls in defensive battle at North Babylon

ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead junior Brandon Tolliver scored a game-high 20 points Tuesday night at North Babylon.


North Babylon senior Cortland Speight held the ball tightly between his hands as the crowd at North Babylon High School roared to life. Speight stood near the left sideline, far beyond the 3-point line, as the seconds ticked away on the shot clock and the Bulldogs holding a three-point lead on Riverhead.

As the crowd grew restless, urging Speight to make his move, the senior darted toward the middle of the court. He dribbled toward the top of the arc, crossed over his defender and pulled up for a straightaway 3-pointer.

Nothing but net.

“That’s what a senior does,” said North Babylon coach Brendan McCaffrey. “Stepping up like that, hitting that three, it’s crazy.”

“You got to give the kid credit,” said Riverhead coach John Rossetti. “He hadn’t hit one of those all game and he knocks one down.”

Speight’s trey put the finishing touches on a 48-44 League III victory for the Bulldogs Tuesday night in a game that featured the top two teams in the league. North Babylon (6-1 league, 8-3 overall) pulled into a tie for first at the midway point of the league season while handing the Blue Waves their first league loss.

The loss snapped an eight-game win streak for Riverhead (9-2 overall).

An anticipated matchup, the game lived up to the hype as both teams played 32 minutes of tenacious defense. Rossetti said the teams were “mirror images” of each other.

“When you have two quality teams on the court, it comes down to defensive intensity and executing your possessions in the fourth quarter,” Rossetti said. “Both teams demonstrated a defensive intensity. [North Babylon] just executed a little bit better in the fourth quarter.”

The Blue Waves trailed by as many as eight in the first half, but closed out the second quarter strong. They then came out firing in the third with a 14-6 run, which included 3-pointers from Ryan Bitzer and Markim Austin, to take their first lead of the game.

Riverhead appeared to have the momentum during the fourth quarter, but the Blue Waves’ offense stalled down the stretched. Turnovers started to pile up in the fourth and when the Blue Waves got a good look, they couldn’t knock it down.

North Babylon played most of the game in a 3-2 zone before switching to man-to-man in the fourth.

McCaffrey kept the man defense in his back pocket until the game was on the line.

“Man’s our best defense,” he said.

Rossetti said it came down to poor execution more so than the type of defense North Babylon was playing.

“We would rather see man than zone,” he said.

The zone defense, with three players swarming the perimiter, was designed to make it difficult for Riverhead’s shooters to spring free. The Blue Waves still got up 20 3-pointers, but knocked down only three (15 percent). Bitzer was limited to five points.

While the Bulldogs crowded the shooters, it left the middle open and junior Brandon Tolliver stepped up to carry the team offensively. He scored a game-high 20 points, nearly all which came in the paint. He dominated on the glass, grabbing offensive rebounds and going up strong for buckets.

“He had a great game,” Rossetti said. “He was tough defensively, he commanded the boards and was aggressive to the basket.”

“Tolliver just tore it up,” McCaffrey said. “He just killed us inside.”

Tolliver put the Blue Waves up 40-38 with 4:24 left in the fourth on an offensive rebound after two Riverhead misses down low. But after that bucket the offense stalled for Riverhead and North Babylon surged to a 10-2 run.

Jeremiah Cheatom had a big day on the boards for Riverhead as well. He converted an offensive board with 3:16 left to tie the game at 42. The Bulldogs answered on the other end with a bucket from Isiah Moore off an offensive rebound. He hit one of two free throws 30 seconds later to make it a three-point game.

The Blue Waves had plenty of chances down the stretch before Speight rose up for the big 3-pointer.

Still, the Blue Waves had chances. Austin was fouled on a drive to the basket with :27.9 left and could have cut the lead in half. He missed the free throw, but Cheatom came up with the rebound and the Blue Waves called a time-out.

On the ensuing possession Bitzer put a up a quick 3-pointer that missed.

“Tonight, either team could beat anybody,” McCaffrey said. “Just a great game.”

Speight scored a team-high 18 for North Babylon. Chris Coalmon added 11. Austin was the only other Blue Wave in double figures with 11.

“Games like this are only going to make us better,” Rossetti said.

When the two teams meet again at Riverhead High School in the final game of the regular season, the league title may very well be up for grabs.

“I hope so,” McCaffrey said.

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