Earlier there were cheers, but it ended with tears. The tears flowed and flowed and flowed.
Those tears started forming on Riverhead faces while the Blue Waves were still on the basketball court and the final moments were winding down. The result finished in visiting Sachem East’s favor, 71-61, and with it, Riverhead saw its playoff hopes dashed in a Suffolk County League I game that had slipped from its grasp. Distraught players were consoled on the court and on the bench. Later, sobbing could be heard in the Riverhead team room.
“These are my brothers right here,” TayShaun Hawkins said after finally emerging from the team room, still clearly shaken by what transpired. “No matter what, they’ve been with me since day one, so that’s what really hurt the most.”
“These are all my brothers, like I treat them like they are my blood brothers,” he continued. “Since seventh grade we had this team goal. That’s what hurts the most. There’s no way. I still can’t believe this happened.”
Riverhead went into the Senior Night game needing to defeat Sachem East and then post a win at Central Islip on Wednesday in order to snag a playoff berth. It didn’t happen.
Riverhead twice led by as many as 17 points, including at halftime, and appeared as if it had the game in hand. That might have been the problem. That lead wasn’t as safe as it may have seemed.
“We were happy that we were up by so much,” D.J. Spruill said. “I feel like we got a little too relaxed.”
Sachem East (4-15, 3-10), which started the day in last place in the eight-team league and had lost to Riverhead by nine points Jan. 10, turned it on in the second half. The Flaming Arrows scored the first 10 points of the third quarter on a three-point play by A.J. Esposito, an Esposito layup, two Esposito free throws and a Tommy Signor three-pointer. Shortly after, Nick Kozlowski scored eight straight points himself from a conventional three-point play, a trey and a layup.
But it was one of Signor’s four three-pointers that tied it at 46-46 late in the quarter. Connor Levasseur briefly restored Riverhead’s lead with a baseline jumper, but a buzzer-beating three by Josh Andrechuk put Sachem East ahead for good.
The Flaming Arrows outscored Riverhead, 26-8, in the quarter.
“We just started falling apart,” said Hawkins.
In the fourth quarter, Sachem East stretched its lead to as many as 11 points.
“Momentum can change just like that,” said Riverhead coach Elwood Lamb. He added: “We had put ourself in a decent position and, you know, nothing in basketball is guaranteed, you know. You got to go out and play every second every quarter in every game till the end.”
It was quite a turnaround from the first half, which saw Riverhead produce a 22-0 run with seven points each from Hawkins and Spruill for a 36-19 lead.
Riverhead, which dropped to 9-10, 5-8, had trouble with two big men, the 6-5 Esposito and 6-4 Kozlowski. Esposito finished with 26 points, 14 rebounds and three steals. Kozlowski was good for 17 points. Andrechuk and Signor added 12 points each. Andrechuk also had six assists.
Riverhead, outrebounded by 36-28, received 21 points from Hawkins, 17 from Spruill and 11 from Levasseur. Curtis Spruill, D.J.’s cousin, had 10 rebounds while Hawkins and Amari Funn each supplied six assists.
Before the game, Riverhead’s six seniors — Brandon Johnson, Daniel Regini, Logan Swenk, Hawkins and the Spruill cousins — were honored for their service to the program.
They were part of a team that faced an uphill battle this season. Not only was it Riverhead’s first season in League I, but the Blue Waves did not play last season because of school budget cuts and Hawkins was the only Blue Wave who played varsity ball before this season, Lamb’s first as a varsity head coach.
After opening the campaign with a 2-5 record, Riverhead won six straight and seven of eight to put itself in playoff contention. Friday’s loss, though, was its fourth in a row and undoubtedly the toughest of them all.
“It’s definitely the most difficult thing I’ve experienced,” said D.J. Spruill.
Lamb, who was a Riverhead assistant coach for 12 years before taking over the head coaching duties, said he has never seen a team take a loss as hard.
“Right now I don’t have all the words,” Lamb said. “I’m hurting, just like they’re hurting.”