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Boys Basketball: Mercy’s first league win isn’t pretty

Boy, it was cold inside.

That would be inside the Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School gym. And it had nothing to do with the temperature. It had to do with shooting percentages.

After shutting Port Jefferson out in the first quarter and limiting the Royals to one field goal in the first half, Mercy blew the lead it had before regaining it and holding on for its first Suffolk County League VII boys basketball win, 38-30, on Friday night.

“It’s better to win ugly than to lose ugly, I guess,” said Mercy coach Kevin O’Halloran, whose team played its first home game since Dec. 12.

It wasn’t pretty, but it sure was intriguing.

Baskets by John Venesina, Matt Chilicki, Matt Kneidl and Chris Atkinson (a three-pointer) left Mercy (7-8, 1-4) holding a 9-0 lead by the end of the first quarter.

The Monarchs added another point before Port Jefferson (7-9, 1-5) finally got on the scoreboard, courtesy of two Thomas Mark free throws 1 minute, 13 seconds into the second quarter. Port Jefferson, facing a 2-3 zone defense, missed its first 14 field-goal attempts before Charles Rolfe made a layup with 1:58 left in the first half. The Royals shot 1-for-17 in the first half, yet still trailed by only 16-8 at halftime.

“It was kind of sloppy, but we just did our best to play good defense,” Venesina said. “We were just trying to keep it up.”

Port Jefferson managed to go in front by opening the third quarter on an 11-1 run, six of those points coming from Bryce Lewis, who led the Royals with 12 points. “Before you knew it, we’re down by one,” said O’Halloran.

A steal and layup by Lewis made the score 19-17 Port Jefferson. Shortly after, he buried a three-pointer for a 22-18 lead.

But Mercy didn’t wilt.

“I knew we’d come back,” said Mercy forward Aidan Martin, who pulled down 13 rebounds.

Chilicki canned a three, Venesina sank a pair of foul shots and then Venesina converted a conventional three-point play for a 26-22 Mercy lead with 51.3 seconds to go in the third quarter. The Monarchs never trailed after that, although Port Jefferson pulled to within one point on three occasions.

Mercy forward Allan Zilnicki, who entered the game with a 21.1-point average, was swarmed by multiple defenders when he had the ball in his hands. So Venesina, a senior guard, came through with a career-high 16 points. “I was just trying to do my best to help the team, knowing that they were triple-teaming Al,” said Venesina.

Zilnicki had seven points (all on free throws) and nine rebounds.

“A lot of guys played up,” Martin said. “It’s what we needed, really.”

The shooting percentages were low for both teams: 22.2 percent for Port Jefferson and 34.3 percent for Mercy.

The loss was Port Jefferson’s fifth straight since it defeated Mercy by 30 points on Jan. 9.

Port Jefferson coach Keith Buehler said his team was without two of its best players, Grant Calendrille and Jack Collins, because of illness, and Jonathan Bachmann, who played, was just coming back from the flu. “The bottom line, honestly, is we’re just missing too many bodies,” he said.

As sloppy as the game was, O’Halloran said the result looks good on paper.

Venesina said, “We’ve had some ups and downs, but we have to finish out the season well to make the playoffs.”

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Photo caption: Senior guard John Venesina brought Bishop McGann-Mercy a career-high 16 points against Port Jefferson. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)