For a league opener in December, Riverhead’s game at Smithtown West Monday certainly was played with the high intensity of a playoff game in February.
The Blue Waves’ 89-81 victory had everything you could want and then some — team work, great individual play and timely rebounding. And while the score did not necessarily indicate it, defense, ball-hawking and some tough marking, especially when it was needed down the stretch.
They hope the result will translate in a playoff berth in two months. Riverhead certainly was at the top of its game in its League II opener.
“It’s always nice to start the league 1-0,” coach John Rossetti said. “You’re not in a hole, you’re creating for yourself a little separation.”
Rossetti got little argument from his players.
“It’s very good for our confidence,” said forward Quashiem Miller, who controlled the inside game with a team-high 24 points and 15 rebounds. “We’re missing a couple of players. It gives us the energy boost that we can win any game in this league.”
Last year the Blue Waves (2-1, 1-0) missed the playoffs by a couple of games, so every game counts, especially against a Bulls squad (0-1, 2-1) that reached the postseason with a 16-7 mark last season.
“This is really important,” said senior guard Christian Pace, who scored 22 points and dished out seven assists. “This definitely is going to give us momentum going forward. We know every game counts. We missed the playoffs by a couple of games last year, so every league win matters. It’s a big win.”
The Blue Waves carried an extra chip on their shoulders, thinking back to last year’s loss.
“We knew we didn’t want to let that happen to us again,” Pace said.
The Bulls bolted out to a 7-0 advantage in the opening 6:14 before Rossetti called a timeout. Whatever he told his team, it must have worked as the Blue Waves tallied the next nine points in what turned into a see-saw battle until midway through the third quarter. By then the lead had changed hands 14 times and had been tied seven times.
Smithtown had something to say about that whether Jarious Bernard (27 points) was bombing away for five treys or Matt Behrens (20 points) adding long- and short-range baskets.
Guard Zy’Aire Pittman knocked down a three-pointer to snap a 49-49 tie with five minutes and two seconds remaining in the third quarter and the Blue Waves never looked back.
Pittman scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half and seven in the fourth quarter, negating any chance for the Bulls to have a comeback.
“Everybody’s telling me to shoot,” he said. “I was off all night. But if you’re a shooter, you’re going to keep shooting. I was just being confident.”
Guard Albert Daniels was the fourth Blue Wave to finish in double figures (16 points).
Miller did most of his damage in the second and third quarters, scoring 20 of his points. Smithtown West had no answer for the 6-3 senior forward.
“He’s our silent giant,” Rossetti said. “He goes out there every night. He’s steady. He’s constantly giving us 20 points and 15 boards. You can’t ask for anymore from a kid like that.”
With the Blue Waves leading by 68-64 with 7:07 remaining in the fourth period, the bench started chanting “Defense! Defense!” — something usually reserved for the fans, not necessarily the players.
“We always do that,” Pittman said. “We like to build momentum ourselves.”
Even early in the game. Leading 18-17 late in the opening period, Daushan Massenburg and Pace turned steals into layups during a 10-second span.
Pace said Riverhead was deploying a 2-2-1 press at the time.
“Maybe we got a couple of deflections,” he said. “That gives us momentum and easy lay-ups when we get turnovers like that.”
One game doesn’t make a successful season but it certainly can set the table for one.
“Playoffs is the goal, going all the way,” Miller said.
When asked the team’s chances of reaching the postseason, the senior forward replied, “99 percent.”
Added Pace: “We can go as far as we want to take it honestly. We’ve got to play as a team, come and play every single game. The sky’s the limit for us.”
Top photo caption: Riverhead’s Albert Daniels tries to get up a left-handed shot. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)