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Boys Basketball: Riverhead turns its season around

After losing five of its first seven games, the Riverhead boys basketball team was at the precipice. Staring down at a potential deep dive into irrelevance, the Blue Waves banded together, pulled themselves up, and salvaged a season that was in danger of slipping away from them.

“Truthfully, I felt like it was over,” said senior center Curtis Spruill.

And then the holiday season arrived, not a moment too soon for Riverhead.

The Mariner Athletic Club Holiday Classic at Southampton High School turned everything around for Riverhead. After beating East Hampton, 61-50, in an opening-round game Dec. 27, a 62-59 victory over rival Southampton in the final two days later lifted Riverhead spirits. Those were the first two games of a six-game win streak, setting Riverhead on course for a season more to its liking.

“At the beginning of the season, the way we were going, it could have went the other way, but they chose to work harder and it’s going in the right direction,” coach Elwood Lamb said. He added: “We got to that tournament and we didn’t look back. After that tournament, we were riding on a wave.”

A blue wave, undoubtedly.

That wave continued Friday night when Riverhead avenged an earlier loss with a 64-58 win at Sachem North. It was Riverhead’s seventh win in eight games before a 77-63 home defeat to Brentwood Monday.

Recalling his team’s 2-5 start, small forward TayShaun Hawkins said: “I knew how good of a team we can be © so it was kind of frustrating when those losses were stacking up. Our mindset just had to change.”

“We just responded to all the adversity,” he continued. “A lot of people were doubting us due to the fact that we didn’t have sports last year and now our season was looking like that, so once we turned that around, the whole narrative changes.”

Surely, Riverhead wasn’t facing a shortage of adversity. Because of a school budget failure, the team didn’t play last season. In addition, this is Riverhead’s first season playing in Suffolk County League I and Hawkins is the only player with varsity experience prior to this season. That’s a lot for Lamb, in his first head coaching job, and assistant coach Lonnie Hughes to deal with.

Curtis Spruill, shooting over Sachem North’s Tyler Davide Friday night, has averaged 18.4 points per game over the last nine games for Riverhead. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

Now Riverhead (9-7, 5-5), sitting in fourth place in the eight-team league, seems to have the chemistry to go with the talent. Understandably, it took a little time.

Hawkins said, “We’re seniors, we really don’t want to go out that way, so we started having more chemistry off the court, started going out to eat, like team stuff, all together, and once the Christmas tournament happened. I think that’s what gave us the confidence and we started rolling ever since then.”

With teams focusing their defensive attention on Hawkins, the 6-3 Spruill has raised his level, averaging 18.4 points over the last nine games. Hawkins, who averaged 16.1 points during that stretch, said Spruill is “like a brother to me. I mean, he stepped up big. It’s great playing with somebody like that, you know, that got my back, because there’s going to be teams out there locking on me. A lot of teams, I’m part of the focus point, so when he steps up and I can rely on him, it’s a good feeling.”

Meanwhile, Amari Funn, Connor Levasseur and Brandon Johnson have taken turns filling the third scorer role.

Spruill led Riverhead with 22 points Monday against Brentwood while Hawkins tacked on 18 and Funn 11.

On Friday, Spruill scored 10 of his 20 points in the first quarter to help Riverhead to an 18-11 lead. Sachem North never caught up. Hawkins netted 19 points and Levasseur had 11, with three three-pointers.

“Right now we’re just clicking at the right time,” Lamb said. “It’s beautiful.”

With two wins from its remaining four games, Riverhead would book its third playoff appearance in four years.

“I’ve been there before and I miss that feeling,” Hawkins said. “I just know how bad that I want it, how bad the team wants it. We all have the same goal, and it would mean so much, knowing we didn’t have a season last year and everybody really doubting us.”

Now the Blue Waves believe in themselves.

“I tell the kids I’m so proud of them,” Lamb said. “No matter how the season ends, you know, I’m proud of them.”