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Boys Basketball: Zilnicki powers Mercy to fifth straight win

After winning four consecutive high school boys basketball games, Bishop McGann-Mercy may have begun to feel as if all it had to do was walk into a gym to chalk up a “W.”

Southold served a reminder to the Monarchs that that is not the case.

Yes, Mercy did register its fifth win a row Tuesday night (after opening the season with four losses), but the Monarchs had to claw and scratch their way to victory as Southold put up a tremendous fight in the non-league game on its home floor.

“We can’t just show up and expect to beat everybody,” Mercy coach Kevin O’Halloran said. “That shouldn’t have been a sweat out, but it was … You have to play smart.”

Twenty-five turnovers, nearly twice as many as Southold’s total, hurt Mercy, but the Monarchs were able to overcome them — no small thanks to the considerable efforts of Allan Zilnicki — for a 50-42 triumph. Because both sides are Class C teams, the game could prove to have playoff implications down the road.

“It’s huge,” O’Halloran replied when asked how significant the game was.

After a rough start to the season, Mercy has turned things around. In a big way, too. The play of Zilnicki has been a major reason.

“He’s been terrific,” said O’Halloran.

The senior forward was a force once again, scoring 22 points and pulling down 19 rebounds. He sank 11 of 15 free throws. As a team, Mercy went 18-for-23 from the foul line to help offset its turnover trouble.

“He was huge,” Southold guard Steven Russell said. “He was everything for their offense — scoring, rebounding, passing. He was pretty much doing it all for them.”

Southold (0-4) was well aware of Zilnicki and the threat he posed. “He’s a tough player,” Southold coach Lucas Grigonis said. “You can only fret over one player only so much. At the end of the day it’s a team game.”

True enough. Mercy also received 12 points from John Venesina and 11 from Matt Chilicki, who knocked down three three-pointers. Joe Algieri chipped in six points and nine rebounds.

A back-and-forth game that saw 10 lead changes turned for the last time when Mercy reeled off 12 straight points for a 47-39 lead with 1 minute, 21 seconds left in the game. The active Zilnicki accounted for six of those points.

A free throw by Max Kruszeski and a floater by Russell pulled Southold to within five points, but Mercy closed the game out with two foul shots by Venesina and another by Zilnicki in the final 16.4 seconds.

“We played a little sloppy here and there, but I was just happy with the way we closed out and that we were able to win,” Zilnicki said. “That was the most important thing for us because it was a big game.”

Two sophomores, Nick Grathwohl and Russell, turned in big performances for Southold. Grathwohl scored 16 points (nine on three-pointers) while Russell had what Grigonis called a breakthrough game with 12 points, nine rebounds, six steals, three assists and a block.

Mercy overcame a 14-2 Southold run bridging the third and fourth quarters. Russell contributed six points to that surge, which left the First Settlers holding a 38-33 edge with 6:39 to go in the game.

Over the final 2:10, Southold was forced to play more aggressively on defense and two starters, Michael Daddona and Jacob Dominy, fouled out.

Young Southold is still looking for its first win, but saw signs of improvement after losing by 33 points to Babylon, 49 to Center Moriches and 20 to Stony Brook.

“I think they need to stay positive,” Grigonis said of his players. “I think they need to realize that the hard work is paying off and that tomorrow is another day. I was very happy. It was a brand new team compared to the one I knew 10 days ago. I think they made a commitment to defense and to really picking each other up, and their energy was great tonight. So, in that sense, I think that we turned a corner, and I don’t see us looking back.”

Mercy doesn’t want to turn back, either, not with a five-game win streak on its hands. Before heading out the door to the team bus, O’Halloran was asked how five in a row felt.

His answer: “It beats the alternative.”

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Photo caption: Bishop McGann-Mercy’s Allan Zilnicki tries to dribble around Southold’s Max Kruszeski. (Credit: Garret Meade)