PANTHERS 64, TUCKERS 37
There was no stay of execution, no last-minute reprieve.
As expected, the Mattituck boys basketball team’s elimination from playoff contention arrived Friday night. The Tuckers can thank Babylon for that.
First-place Babylon, which is closing in on its first league championship since the 1977-78 season, kept rolling toward that goal with its 64-37 win at Mattituck High School. The Panthers (14-2, 11-1 Suffolk County League VII), who have regular-season games remaining against Center Moriches and Port Jefferson, are in control of their own destiny. If they win out, they will become league champions.
Mattituck’s record dropped to 4-12, 4-8 in league play. It has hardly been the sort of senior season Mattituck’s three 12th-graders may have hoped for. Tyler Connell, Ryan Finger and Justin Tyler undoubtedly would have preferred a championship to brag about, a playoff run to experience and more playing time, but it wasn’t in the cards. None of the three are regular starters (although Connell and Tyler were in the starting lineup Friday). They are all role players, but role players who made a difference.
Back when Mattituck was 1-6, its season was on the brink of disaster. It can be a delicate balance when a team’s best players are younger players, and seniors are sitting on the bench. Coach Paul Ellwood sensed frustration and unhappiness among his seniors over their roles. He had a long talk with them and explained that this was a test of their character.
They responded in a positive fashion. Ellwood said all three have helped the Tuckers win games over the second half of the season.
“We all brought different things,” Finger said. “Tyler is an incredible ball-handler [and] point guard. J. T. can shoot the lights out, and I just get down there and body kids.”
The result has been a definite improvement from a 1-17 record last season. Mattituck salvaged a season by building a good foundation for next season when young, up-and-coming players like freshman Joe Tardif, sophomore Will Gildersleeve and sophomore Chris Dwyer can be expected to take their games a step further.
“Things didn’t come as fast as we would have liked, but we turned around the season,” Connell said. “It brings satisfaction that we did better than last season. We got some wins.”
Not against Babylon, though.
In registering its 11th straight win, Babylon showed itself to be at a different level than Mattituck. Babylon scored the game’s first 20 points before Finger put Mattituck on the scoreboard with a 3-pointer 5 minutes 39 seconds into the game.
Babylon’s Fernando Vazquez, who is being recruited by Division II and III college teams, put his superb talent on display. The senior guard, a transfer from Half Hollow Hills West whose black hair with a streak of orange matches his school’s colors, collected a game-high 21 points to go with 5 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 steals and 2 blocks. One of his most impressive moves of the night, a midair followup, made the score 36-18 by halftime.
Well-rounded performances were also turned in by Jacob Carlock (13 points, 9 assists), Raymond Wardell (10 points) and Brendan Laing (9 points).
“They can shoot,” Finger said. “They can score inside, outside. Vazquez is a great point guard. Everything runs through him. It’s kind of hard to stop them when they’re flowing.”
The Panthers have height (which helped with 9 blocks against Mattituck), they have talent and their ball movement is a joy to behold. They resemble a small college team, quickly snapping passes around the court, probing for an opening.
‘“They really play together,” said Babylon coach Chris Morra, whose team shot 55.1 percent from the floor and turned the ball over only eight times.
Ellwood said he told Mattituck’s junior varsity coach, Kevin Chartrand, that he felt as if he was grasping at straws, trying to come up with a defense to stop Babylon.
“Our kids fought,” Ellwood said. “It wasn’t for lack of effort. The effort was there, and still we couldn’t touch them, so it’s a little like, ‘Whoa.’ ”
The high scorer for Mattituck was Gildersleeve with 8 points. Eugene Allen came down with 10 rebounds to go with his 7 points. Tardif had 7 assists.
Mattituck’s playoff chances were hanging by a thread. The Tuckers had needed to win their final four regular-season games in order to avoid sitting out the playoffs for a second straight year. They have regular-season games remaining against Wyandanch and Southampton. Although the playoffs are out of the picture, Mattituck’s future holds promise.
“I feel a lot better now than I did three weeks ago, that’s for sure,” Ellwood said. “All the signs were there for everything to go bad, and they didn’t, so I told those guys I appreciate their attitude. It means a lot to me. The seniors stuck with us, and the young guys got better at the same time.”
Tyler said he has had a “blast” playing this season. Asked if he wished he could play for the Tuckers in another year or two, he replied: “I would absolutely love to play with these guys a couple of years from now. Actually, I would love to be this age for the rest of my life and keep playing high school basketball. There’s nothing better than this.”