Nothing is easy.
Not in Suffolk County League VII boys basketball, anyway.
Mattituck’s situation was a perfect case in point. Going by the eye test, Mattituck is a clear playoff team. The Tuckers have talent, depth to work with and a veteran coach. At the start of the day, Mattituck’s overall record was 12-6, and yet it was conceivable that the Tuckers were only two losses away from sitting out the postseason for a second straight year.
That had to be a chilling thought for the Tuckers, considering their final regular-season game will be Friday night at league champion Center Moriches, a New York State Class B semifinalist last year that could very well make a return trip to the final four.
With the unappealing prospect of facing Center Moriches in a must-win situation on the Red Devils’ Senior Night, Mattituck knew a lot was at stake Tuesday night at Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School. A loss might have signaled the end for the Tuckers. The pressure was real.
“We approached it like a playoff game,” said Mattituck coach Paul Ellwood.
Mercy, which started the day tied for last place with Port Jefferson, apparently did the same. The Monarchs fought Mattituck every bit of the way, even putting a bit of scare into the visitors before Mattituck secured a hard-earned 60-50 victory.
“That’s big for a young team like ours,” said Mattituck junior forward Ryan Seifert, who had 15 points, nine rebounds, four steals and three assists. “We can only grow from here.”
Mattituck is young and experienced, a great combination. Its only two seniors are reserve players Tucker Johansson and Lucas Micheels.
“We’re definitely young,” junior guard Nick Perino (10 points, five assists) said. “We’re still going to be the same team for next year.”
But Mattituck needed to show some veteran poise Tuesday in order to raise its league record to 5-4. Early on, Mattituck rode an 11-2 run, keyed by a pair of Perino three-pointers, for a 16-7 lead. Plucky Mercy (7-12, 1-8) answered back with a 9-0 burst to even things at 18-18 early in the second quarter.
But it wasn’t until the second half when things really started to get interesting. Mercy shot 8-for-15 from the field in the third quarter to slice Mattituck’s lead to 41-39.
“They made a run and then we got tight,” said Ellwood.
Back-to-back buckets by John Venesina (17 points), the last a three, put Mercy ahead, 44-43, just 58 seconds into the fourth quarter.
For the Tuckers, it was finish the game or their season would be about finished.
“The crowd was getting pretty loud, momentum was shifting,” said Seifert.
Mattituck buckled down. A top-of-the-key jumper by H’Nadahri Joyner (12 points, eight rebounds), a three-pointer by Perino (his third of the game), a three by Xavier Allen (20 points, four treys), a putback by Joyner, another three by Allen and a Seifert layup off a darted pass by Allen gave the Tuckers some breathing room at 58-46.
“Every game you got to play hard,” Seifert said. “You can’t come in here thinking you’re going to win. I felt like we started answering back and making our own shots.”
Venesina and Allan Zilnicki (17 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals) combined for seven straight Mercy points to pull the Monarchs within five. But Allen sank 2 of 4 free throws in the final 30.2 seconds and Joyner made a big defensive rebound to help secure the victory.
Mattituck’s offense was aided by Isaiah Johnson, who scored one point but collected 10 assists.
Mercy received 10 points from Jaylen Stilley and six points and 11 rebounds from Aidan Martin.
“It’s a relief,” Seifert said. “We don’t have to play Center and go on their court and win that game. That game is not going to be easy.”
Then again, what in League VII is?