The proverbial turning point for the Mattituck boys basketball team during the last high school season came after the Tuckers were blown out by Center Moriches. In that game, the Tuckers struggled to advance the ball past the midcourt line. The loss left the Tuckers with a 3-9 record. What was left for them to play for?
“We got blown out in Center Moriches, and there were two ways we could go,” Mattituck Coach Paul Ellwood said. “These kids have a lot of character, and they stepped up.”
Something clicked after that game, and the Tuckers haven’t been the same since. Their fortunes turned for the better, dramatically.
The Tuckers played exceptionally well in the final six games of the school season, winning three and losing three, two of which were heartbreakers. They went on to go 8-1 in a spring league. Then they reached the final four of a camp that involved 20 teams at Stony Brook University.
In a continuation of that fine form, the Tuckers completed their regular season in the Town of Brookhaven Summer League with a 45-34 defeat of Miller Place on Tuesday night, leaving them with a 7-2 record.
On top of that, the Tuckers have been playing this summer without three key players. Twins Steve and Tom Ascher, as well as Yianni Rauseo, all of whom are seniors, are playing baseball. That has opened up doors for younger players, though, who should give Ellwood a deeper rotation to turn to.
“This team came a long way,” Ellwood said. “People say you don’t have any reason to play [when you have a losing record]. Well, they had a lot of reason to play. They wanted to do something for themselves. They had goals that they wanted to attain, and they started it in those six games” to close out the school season.
How far have the Tuckers come since last winter?
“It’s only been like half a year, and we really kind of like doubled where we were,” said Cody Huntley, Mattituck’s 6-foot-4 senior center.
How did they do it?
For one thing, they put in a lot of time. Ellwood said this is the most committed group of players he has coached. Also, the players have shown a determination to put a stop to a pattern of losing.
“Everybody on the team wants to be good, and we’re sick of losing,” senior point guard Connor Davis said. “We couldn’t take losing very well … We felt that these teams aren’t better than us, and we could play with them.”
The Tuckers have shown that this summer. Facing a good Miller Place team on Tuesday at Riverhead High School, the Tuckers pulled themselves out of a 9-2 hole, managed a four-point lead by halftime, and then expanded on that lead in the second half.
“They don’t get flustered,” Ellwood said. “They’ve learned to weather the droughts.”
Call it a sign of a mature team.
Another sign of a mature team is its ability to limit turnovers, and the Tuckers have done that as well. They had 13 turnovers on Tuesday.
The presence of Huntley and the 6-3 Thomas Sledjeski helped the Tuckers hold Mount Sinai (6-3) to only five offensive rebounds.
Sledjeski scored 16 points to go with nine rebounds. Mike Mangiamele added 11 points.
Jack Hepburn connected on three three-point shots and led the Mustangs with 11 points. His teammate Kevin Leyden had nine points.
The Tuckers have found that good defense can work wonders. Indeed, defense has been a big part of their revival. They can turn to three types of presses to keep opponents off-balance.
“We picked it up the second half of the [school] season, definitely, defensive-wise,” Huntley said. “The first half of the season we were giving up 60-point games. In the second half we were holding teams to like 30 points.”
Now Huntley said the Tuckers want to win a county title. It might be wise for opponents not to sell the Tuckers short.
“We’re looking forward to the season,” Davis said, “and people should look out for us.”