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Boys Basketball: Wildcats’ wild season ends in final

The same high school boys basketball team that gave the Shoreham-Wading River Wildcats an indication at the start of the season of just how good they are, followed it up Sunday with a reminder that it’s still the better team.

This crazy season for SWR started and ended with Center Moriches.

The start was SWR’s seven-point, season-opening loss to Center Moriches on Feb. 11, a litmus test of sorts. On paper, it was a defeat for the Wildcats, but in their souls it was a confidence-boosting performance against the Red Devils, who last year won their fourth straight Long Island championship.

“We knew they are a great team and if we could play with them, we could play with anyone else in the league,” said senior Joey Dwyer.

That sense helped power SWR through seven straight wins and a place against League VII champion Center Moriches in the Suffolk County Conference IV final Sunday. At that point, Center Moriches’ quality shined through in the form of a 76-61 victory on its home court.

“They were better than us,” SWR coach Kevin Culhane said. “They did things better than us and today we just didn’t play as well as we could have.”

Center Moriches (9-1) had big shoes to fill this year in following up their powerhouse 2019-20 team, which may have won a state title had the pandemic not intervened. The Red Devils are still quite good. All one had to do was watch them play Sunday to see that.

“We were led by our three-headed monster, with [Jordan] Falco, [Jaden] Kealey and [Dayrien] Franklin,” Center Moriches coach Nick Thomas said. “And, you know, Jordan is our vocal leader, and he anchors our communication. They all have a basketball IQ. Jaden is our physical presence, and Dayrien is our heart and soul. So, when you have communication and leadership and you have physical talent and you have a will to win, once you put that together, that’s a recipe for a championship.”

Franklin rang up 20 points and six assists. Two 6-foot-6 players, Kealey (14 points, 16 rebounds, three assists, three steals) and Falco (12 points, nine rebounds, five assists, four steals), made their considerable presence felt. And C.J. Brackett delivered 12 points.

Tom Bell beats Dayrien Franklin on a breakaway for a basket. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

“We have a lot of expectations to win, and we always have a target on our back and everybody always comes at us,” Franklin said. “Every game is like hard, you know what I mean? Everybody always wants to beat us.”

The will was there for SWR (7-2), led by Dwyer’s 25 points and senior Tom Bell’s 22. They each had five assists as well.

Falco’s three-pointer from the right corner late in the first quarter snapped an 18-18 tie and gave Center Moriches the lead for good.

In the second quarter, Center Moriches stretched its lead to 41-25 as Franklin netted five points during a 9-0 run.

Try as they did, the Wildcats couldn’t catch up.

“They’re just a really good team and credit to them, they played better than us,” Dwyer said. “They deserved the win, that’s the bottom line.”

Reflecting on the four-week season that produced so many memories, Bell said: “To be able to be back on the basketball court, playing with my best friends is a blessing, and I couldn’t ask for anything else. We had a great season. We fought hard to the end. That’s all I could ask for.”

The emotion showed on Culhane’s reddened face as emerged from a postgame meeting with his players and assistant coach Tim Gilmore.

“A great bunch of kids, and it’s just a very sad day for me, not just for the loss, [but] the fact that I won’t be coaching the seniors any more,” he said. “They were the foundation of this team. Four years ago we challenged them to really be the building blocks of the program. Every year we took incremental steps, got to the playoffs and this year got to a conference final. It’s a heck of a year. It’s a great year. With the COVID and then the snow days, everything, these kids were resilient.

“I’ll never forget this year. I really won’t.”