A lot was going on Wednesday, especially at Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School. Not only was it Ash Wednesday for Christians, but it was also Valentine’s Day and, oh yes, a long-awaited return to the playoffs for the school’s boys basketball team.
Kevin O’Halloran, in his second season as Mercy’s coach, was told it was Mercy’s first playoff game since 2008. All the more reason why the Monarchs would want to make it a memorable experience, which they did.
Third-seeded Mercy had to put in some extra work, but in the end held on for a 62-58 overtime triumph over No. 6 Southold in a Suffolk County Class C outbracket game. That earned Mercy (8-13) a semifinal at No. 2 Stony Brook (11-6) on Friday.
More than anything else, the game was decided at the foul line. Allan Zilnicki made 5 of 7 free throws and accounted for all seven of Mercy’s points in the four-minute overtime.
Zilnicki followed up a free throw with a conventional three-point play to spot Mercy a 59-55 lead with 1 minute, 11 seconds left in overtime.
Southold’s Zach Grathwohl and Zilnicki then traded a free throw each before a bucket by Van Karsten pulled Southold to within 60-58. But Zilnicki closed things out by sinking two free throws with 3.1 seconds to go. The senior forward finished with 21 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists and two steals.
“Just hanging on,” said O’Halloran.
Zilnicki said: “It was rough. Once they got close I knew we had to get serious and actually play harder than we ever did.”
Southold (7-14) trailed for the bulk of regulation time, but forced overtime thanks to a double-clutch bank shot by Nick Grathwohl with seven seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. That evened things at 55-55.
“We just had to keep fighting hard even though some of the calls weren’t going [our] way,” Mercy guard John Venesina said. “We just had to keep our composure even though it was a playoff game. We just had to do our best to stay calm and run our offense and play good defense.”
Nick Grathwohl, a sophomore guard, scored 23 points (two shy of his career high) to go with nine assists, six rebounds, three steals and three blocks.
Southold outscored Mercy, 21-11, in the fourth quarter, shooting 8-for-14 from the field during the period. Nick Grathwohl had 11 points in the quarter, including a pair of free throws that cut Mercy’s lead to 55-53 with 2:04 to go.
For the most part, though, free throws were working against Southold. The First Settlers shot 12-for-26 from the foul line while Mercy went 17-for-25.
“I think playoff games, the tightest of games, are left to the little things adding up at the end of the game — free-throw shooting, defensive errors, giving up second-chance rebounds,” said Southold coach Lucas Grigonis, whose team lost to Mercy by eight points on Dec. 19. “That’s the stuff that when you get to overtime and the fourth quarter can really hurt you.”
Mercy had to deal with some adversity of its own. The Monarchs, already without junior guard Matt Chilicki because of a knee injury, saw sophomore forward Jaylen Stilley cramp up and have to leave the game with 3:31 left in the fourth quarter.
“When he went out, that hurts,” said O’Halloran.
Stilley had 16 points, as did Venesina, who shot 7-for-7 from the line. Mercy also received seven points and 13 boards from Aidan Martin.
Two Southold starters, Max Kruszeski and Jacob Dominy, fouled out in the fourth quarter and overtime, respectively.
Zach Grathwohl, a senior guard, brought 12 points and nine assists in his final game for Southold. Steven Russell had 10 points.
It was Grigonis’ first playoff game as a head coach and the first postseason experience for all of his players.
“Despite the mistakes, despite maybe not our best showing of the year, they fought hard to the end and we lost in overtime,” he said. “I don’t want to say I’m satisfied, but their effort was there tonight.”
What was the message Grigonis wanted to convey to his players?
“Offseason work has to start soon in order to get back here next year,” he said.
The playoffs are a different animal, as Zilnicki and his teammates came to appreciate.
“It’s completely different, especially with the atmosphere,” he said. “More people are showing up. The student section is even crazier.”
Photo caption: Southold’s Max Kruszeski, left, and Bishop McGann-Mercy’s Jaylen Stilley during Wednesday’s playoff game. (Credit: Bill Landon)