On paper, it wasn’t supposed to be a contest. Everything, really, was in the Mattituck Tuckers’ favor — the depth, the experience, the height. What did the Southold First Settlers have? They had three returning varsity players and five players who made their varsity debuts.
Can you say blowout?
Well, a rout seemed like a real possibility. Then again, this was a rivalry game, and just about anything can happen in a rivalry game.
It also happened to be an opening-round boys basketball game in the eighth annual Southold Invitational. Somewhat surprisingly, it was an even contest for the first 17 minutes, and then the odds finally swung in Mattituck’s favor.
Mattituck scored 16 straight points in the third quarter to pull away to a 55-37 victory on Tuesday night at Southold High School. Tom Ascher, a senior guard, scored a game-high 22 points for Mattituck (2-0), which will play the Mount Sinai Mustangs (1-0) in the tournament final on Friday night. Southold will face the Rocky Point Eagles (1-1) that afternoon in the consolation game.
“It surprised me,” Mattituck Coach Paul Ellwood said of Southold’s strong showing in the first half. “This gym is a house of horrors for us. We haven’t helped ourselves in here. We have had some of our not-so-great games in this gym, but we got through it.”
Southold (0-1) got the better of Mattituck in this game last year before going on to win its own tournament, but times have changed. While Mattituck is on the upswing with what looks to be its strongest team since its Suffolk County championship team from the 2003-4 season, Southold is in a starting-over-again phase. The First Settlers have only three returning players from last season in Alex Conway, Sal Manno and Winston Wilcenski. They were joined in the starting lineup by two new varsity players, Kyle Clausen and Will Fujita. Given the caliber of the competition they faced, they didn’t do too badly, either.
“It was the first game out, there were some goods,” Southold Coach Jeff Ellis said. “There were a lot of bads we have to work on, but there were some goods as well.”
The areas Southold will look to improve in are rebounding and protecting the ball. Mattituck controlled the boards, with a 30-17 advantage in rebounds that included a 15-4 superiority on the offensive glass. Although Mattituck played its second straight game without its regular point guard, Connor Davis, who sat on the bench in street clothes with an ailing hamstring, the Tuckers did well holding onto the ball. They committed only 11 turnovers as compared to Southold’s 21.
“We just got to clean up the little things,” Ellis said. “We got killed on the glass.”
Southold did a good job in a tight first half, exchanging baskets with Mattituck. The lead changed hands six times before a steal and a layup by Manno tied the score at 23-23 by halftime.
After a basket by Mattituck’s Yianni Rauseo early in the third quarter, Wilcenski knocked down a three-point shot from the corner for a 26-25 Southold lead. That was the last time Southold was in front. Mattituck then staged a 16-0 run, which included a pair of three-pointers by Ascher.
From there, Wilcenski said, “it just started falling down the drain.”
Mattituck also finished the game on a 12-2 burst, with seven of those points coming from Ascher.
“We kind of settled down,” said Mattituck’s 6-foot 5-inch center Cody Huntley, who blocked four shots. “It just shows that if we get into a problem in the first half, we can settle down, we can talk about what we’re doing and fix it in the second half of the game.”
Mattituck received 12 points from Steve Ascher, Tom’s brother, as well as seven points and 13 rebounds from Rauseo.
Wilcenski, a junior guard, put up a career-high 18 points for Southold.
One season can make a huge difference in the world of high school basketball. Southold went 18-1 last season with a talented team. This season is a different story, though, with a lot of unknowns.
“It’s not going to be like last year,” Wilcenski said. “It’s not going to be that easy.”
Afterward, Ellwood was asked if he likes rivalry games.
“When we win them, I like them,” he replied. “I think I like it better when you’re the underdog. You have nothing to lose. When you get a win, it’s a great win. There’s more pressure when you’re expected to win.”
Now the Tuckers are 2-0, with a chance to win this tournament for the second time. The first time they did that was in 2003 with the team that went on to claim the county title.
“I’m very happy with this,” Huntley said. “We’re 2 and 0. I can’t complain.”