The buzz was back in Riverhead.
From the season’s earliest moments, the Blue Waves played with an energy that gave fans reason to rise out of their seats.
“They’re a fun team to watch,” said Riverhead coach John Rossetti. “They share the ball well. They play basketball the right way.”
None of the current Blue Waves were in high school the last time Riverhead earned a spot in the Section XI playoffs. The drought had gone on long enough. The Blue Waves’ senior leaders weren’t about to let their careers end without a chance to experience what high school playoffs are all about.
It was no surprise then when the Riverhead faithful, many wearing blue, filled half the bleachers inside the packed gym at Commack High School Thursday for a first round Class AA playoff game.
“Riverhead always does right when it comes to supporting teams,” Rossetti said.
For all the excitement surrounding the Blue Waves, Commack was more than ready to meet the challenge. Playing in front of their own boisterous fans, the Cougars raced out to an early first half lead and held off a big Riverhead rally in the third quarter to emerge victorious.
Commack, the No. 7 seed, prevailed 69-53 against the 10th-seeded Blue Waves to earn a trip into the quarterfinals Saturday.
It was disappointing end to an otherwise resurgent and thrilling season of Riverhead basketball.
The Blue Waves had their seniors to thank for it, including the key trio of three-year players Cristian Pace, Quashiem Miller and Robert Tyre.
“We’re going to miss those guys greatly,” Rossetti said shortly before boarding the bus back to Riverhead. “Tremendous examples of what to be as a Riverhead basketball player.”
Pace (15 points) and Miller (13 points) led the Blue Waves in scoring in their final games.
Commack (15-6) opened up its biggest lead of the game early in the third quarter when Aidan Keenan scored on a fastbreak to put his team ahead by 17.
The Blue Waves (11-10) weren’t done yet.
“We always tell the kids, teams are going to come and get after you at certain points in the game,” said Commack coach Michael Schmitz. “You just got to ride the waves, overcome them and limit mistakes during that time.”
The Blue Waves, turning up their full-court pressure to try to force turnovers, were able to get out in transition more in the third and quickly began to slice into Commack’s lead.
Riverhead stuck for an 11-0 run, capped by a nice pass from Pace to Miller who converted down low and was fouled. The Blue Waves’ fans were in a frenzy as the game suddenly was down to a two-possession difference.
Over the final 1:22 of the quarter, however, Commack righted the ship by converting a pair of 3-pointers that stretched the lead back to 12.
“I think we took a sigh of relief and that’s when they hit two threes to end the quarter,” Rossetti said. “If we could have kept it at six, maybe the fourth quarter would have turned out differently.”
The long ball was a key difference in the game. Commack, a team that doesn’t necessarily rely on three-pointers, converted seven while the Blue Waves hit two.
“Tonight, getting into the lane, the kick-outs were definitely open for us,” Schmitz said. “We were able to knock some big threes down.”
Rossetti said when the team had to rely on traps, it can lead to some open shots on the perimeter.
“You got to live by it and die by it,” he said.
Keenan, a three-year starter, had a monster game for Commack with 27 points to lead all scorers. The senior hit three 3-pointers in the first half and carried the team in fourth quarter with 13 points.
Both teams got off to a sluggish start, combing for only 10 points through the first six minutes. The Cougars found their offensive rhythm first and built a 23-14 lead in the second quarter. Riverhead never got on track offensively in the first half, leading to a 16-point hole at halftime.
Commack, a League I team, has held its own against some tough competition this year. Four of the team’s six losses came against league opponents Longwood and Brentwood, the respective top two seeds in the bracket.
The Cougars will get a third crack at Brentwood Saturday in the quarterfinals. Second-seeded Brentwood rolled past Ward Melville Thursday.