All the teams have finished playing. All the records are in the books. The regular season of high school basketball has come to a close. It being the final day and having a day off from classes (thank God for Tuesdays and Thursdays off!), I decided I could get to a few games thanks to the schedule makers at Section XI. Sachem North girls basketball needed a win on the final day of the regular season to make the playoffs. You need seven wins against your League opponents to qualify. After losing to Walt Whitman (2nd place) on Friday night, I knew travelling to Central Islip at 4 PM would be on my to-do list today.
Since it was a 4 PM start, I knew I’d be able to pick another game to without going too far out of the way. And I also knew it had to be a team that featured a playoff team, or a game with playoff implications. I nearly got a double-dose of wish fulfillment with Ward Melville (9-5, League I) and Commack (5-9, League I). But Commack lost a heart-breaker to William Floyd and a tough game to Brentwood last week, which meant that they were eliminated from post-season contention before this game began. But Ward Melville, which beat Sachem East a week and a half ago, could end up being East’s second round opponent in the playoff is the seedings work out. I needed to scout out Melville. Commack was destination #2.
I’ll start with my alma mater, Sachem North. I saw the best game that they have played in the past two seasons. They came out shooting lights out, led by sophomore Danielle Levine, who had the game of her life. She set the tone with an opening three-pointer, and a few possessions later, a mid-range two for an early five points. North jumped out to an 8-0 lead before CI finally started scoring. But the tone had already been set. Central Islip would cut into the lead and make it 8-7 at one point before North regained their focus and went into the first intermission with a 12-10 lead. In the second quarter, more Levine and Colleen McNeece, a senior power forward, got into the mix with some long jumpers, one of them a three-pointer. From then on, it was a chasing game, and Central Islip could never exactly catch up.
They weren’t helped by the officials at all. Janiece Jenkins, who put up a county-high 33 points* the last time the two teams met (North won that game), picked up her second foul late in the first quarter, and then a costly third before halftime. When five fouls does you in, you start to play very conservatively, and it clearly affected her defense, and obviously she couldn’t score when she was on the bench. But the fouls were on both sides. Junior Erin McNaulty (SN) picked up her second foul early in the second, and had to sit most of that quarter on the bench.
Sachem would lead by as many as 12 in the fourth quarter. Up by 8 with a minute left. The score was closer than the game truly was. The best thing about North tonight was that they did not have their usual turnover-infested, can’t dribble the ball, type performance. The came in with a mindset: We are a playoff caliber team and **** you if you think we aren’t. At no point, after that first CI run to make it an 8-7 game, was there any doubt who the better team was. It will be interesting what seed Section XI gives them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they have to play an “out-bracket” (think NCAA Play-In) game against the 16th, 17th or 18th seed in the county.
I’m really happy I picked Ward Melville – Commack as game number two. You talk about all the positive of high school athletics, they were present there tonight. Excitement, passion, determination and most importantly, FUN. And that’s from the team that had nothing to play for (Commack). It was Senior Night and the gym was pretty filled out, even on the Ward Melville side, which is about a half-hour drive away! The Commack gym is one of my favorite gyms to visit, because of the history of Samantha Prahalis. Love or hate her attitude, she is one of the best basketball players to ever play on Long Island. The bleachers are still wooden, old-school style. It’s a cool experience to watch a game there.
Commack came out firing on all cylinders too, just like North did. They took a 14-4 lead early in the first quarter and forced Melville to turn the ball over, shoot poorly, and coach Lawrence Combs to take an early time-out. The Commack bench was rocking! But Melville got their feet back under them, and seemed to understand that this game could be the difference between a home and an away playoff game next week. They got a lot of help from the double-headed coaching staff of Bruce Haller and Denis Conroy (yes, BOTH of them hold the position on Head Coach). In a 2-3 zone all night, Melville sunk six three-pointers on the evening, 4 of them from junior Caysea Cohen, who had 21 points tonight. And they were wide-open shots. But no matter how much Commack used a full-court press, they were always in a 2-3 in the halfcourt and it kept killing them all night.
The true drama of the game came in the final quarter. Melville paced Commack by anywhere from three to seven points throughout the second half, until Commack started answering with about 3 minutes left in the game. Down by three, Nicole Muller and Erin Stork hit back-to back three pointers to put Commack up by three with under two minutes left. But again, Caysea Cohen was there to answer for Melville, drilling a game-tying three. Then, with Melville using full-court, half-court trapping, Carly Lombardo picked up a loose ball at half court and streaked up the court for a layup with seventeen seconds left. And then strangely, Ward Melville stopped pressing when Commack brought the ball up! I couldn’t believe it!! It had worked so well, and even though Commack had fought back, it wasn’t because they were beating the press! They were just hitting shots.
One of the strangest calls I’ve ever seen in high school basketball.
So Commack gets the ball into the front court and takes a time-out with 8 seconds left. They inbound, get a good look from inside the paint, but it rims out, and a desperation hook shot from the high post doesn’t fall and Melville pulls off the victory. But it was one of the best games I have seen all year.
That’s why high school sports are great. For Commack, this game didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t for money, for a new contract, a scholarship, or even a playoff spot. They had pride and a love for the game that couldn’t be matched. At the end of the day they lost. But I sat right across their bench and watched them react the entire game: there wasn’t another place they wanted to be. Everyone cheered on the Seniors as they played their final minutes. There weren’t any heads hung low because someone didn’t get playing time. They played the game for the name on the front of the jersey, and as Kurt Russel once said in Miracle that’s “a hell of a lot more important than the one on the back”.