You gotta have heart.
Unquestionably, the Riverhead Blue Waves have heart. They also have A.J. Johnson, Albert Daniels and a fighting spirit, not to mention a glistening 3-0 record at the start of their high school boys basketball season.
Getting to 3-0 Thursday was a bit more complicated than they would have liked, but it was an inspiring display. Despite falling behind by 16 points more than halfway through the third quarter and entering the fourth with a 13-point deficit, Riverhead pulled its way back, scoring the final 21 points of the non-league game for an electrifying 65-62 triumph over visiting Patchogue-Medford.
“That was a crazy comeback,” said Johnson, an instrumental figure in the drama.
Crazy is the word.
Johnson scored 13 of his team-leading 19 points in the fourth quarter. Eleven of the junior point guard’s points came during the closing 21-0 run, which he kick-started with a three-point shot. He had the game’s final six points in the last 59 seconds.
Johnson showed his coolness under pressure, too, with clutch free throws down the stretch. After Patchogue’s Jamie Baer slammed the ball on the court upon being called for a charging foul (his fifth foul of the game, prompting his exit), Johnson stepped to the foul line and drained both shots, cutting Patchogue’s lead to 62-61.
A steal and a layup by Johnson with 28 seconds left put Riverhead ahead, 63-62.
Then Patchogue’s Shakhi McCullough (12 points) had his shot blocked by Jahquel Blount (13 points), setting off a scramble. Riverhead’s Shammond Henry dove on the ball before a jump ball was called. The possession arrow pointed in Riverhead’s favor.
When the ball was put in play, Blount was quickly fouled. He sank both ends of a one-and-one with nine seconds left for a three-point lead with nine seconds to go.
“I’m a good free-throw shooter,” Johnson said. “I was nervous, though. I had to calm down.”
Patchogue’s Nick Salamah (30 points, four three-pointers, four assists) rushed an unsuccessful three-point attempt. Henry came down with the rebound and floated the ball deep into Patchogue’s end of the court as time expired.
Game over. Comeback complete.
“That right there is a huge learning curve,” Daniels said. “It showed that this team has a lot of heart and a lot of focus.”
Riverhead coach John Rossetti said the result makes the Blue Waves “believe that if they continue to work hard, good things can happen, and that’s what happened tonight.”
“I would call it a fun win,” he continued. “Was it our best game? Did we draw it up that way? No way, but the end result we’ll definitely take. It worked out.”
The 5-10 Daniels had 10 points and 15 rebounds. “Albert’s a phenomenal athlete on both sides of the court,” Johnson said. “He crushes it on defense, gets rebounds, offensive rebounds. He’s not a big man, but he plays like a big man.”
Jacob Wilkinson brought Riverhead 15 points and five assists.
As part of his day’s work, Johnson had eight rebounds, four steals and two assists. “He’s a great ballplayer,” Daniels said. “A lot of people don’t know that. A terrific ballhandler, a great point guard.”
Johnson has reached double figures in each of Riverhead’s three games, including a 73-56 win over William Floyd and a 73-70 victory over Mount Sinai.
“I’m real proud of his maturity right now,” Rossetti said. “It shows signs of his growth. He’s a good kid, he’s got a good heart and I’m real proud of him.”
Riverhead had a nice stretch in the first quarter, taking a 17-10 lead on a 12-0 spurt. But the 6-3 Dan Stevenson (15 points, eight rebounds, seven blocks, five assists) and his friends then gave Riverhead trouble. Patchogue (1-3) engineered a 20-4 run — 13 of those points coming from Salamah, with the aid of three treys — for a 47-31 lead. It wasn’t until Riverhead picked up the pace more to its liking for its fourth-quarter surge when momentum shifted.
“We were the ones controlling tempo,” Rossetti said, “and whenever we control tempo, that’s when we’re a dangerous team.”
Late in the game, Riverhead pressed and squeezed out a triumph.
“I was hyped,” Johnson said. “I was glad it was over, though.”
Photo caption: A.J. Johnson, who scored 13 of his 19 points for Riverhead in the fourth quarter, slips under the long reach of Patchogue-Medford’s Dan Stevenson for a layup and a 63-62 Blue Waves lead with 28 seconds left in the game. (Credit: George Faella)
You gotta have heart.