The timing couldn’t be better.
Southold High School’s boys basketball team has picked an opportune time to rack up the wins — just in time for its playoff push.
Having won four of their last five games, the First Settlers need one win from their remaining four regular-season games in order to gain entry into the playoffs.
Unselfish play, not forcing shots, executing in the late minutes and sinking free throws near the end of games has made a difference.
“In the beginning of the season we had our ups and downs,” senior forward Max Kruszeski said. “I think we finally found our flow. We found our rhythm.”
Not that Southold had to worry about late-game heroics on Tuesday night. The Settlers did enough damage against shorthanded Smithtown Christian during the first half to roll to a 62-44 Suffolk County League VII win at Southold High School.
Junior forward Steven Russell was responsible for 28 points (four shy of the season-high total he posted against Babylon), 11 rebounds and three steals.
“When Steven can get looks on the inside, I think he’s one of the most dangerous players in our league,” said coach Lucas Grigonis, whose team ran its record to 8-6, 5-3 in the league.
Kruszeski said of Russell, “Nobody can stop him when he gets hot.”
Nick Grathwohl added 12 points.
The industrious Kruszeski’s defensive services were invaluable. He made his presence known by grabbing 10 rebounds, scoring eight points and snatching six of his seven steals in the first half. “Defense is something I try to take pride in because anybody can play defense,” said Kruszeski.
Russell called Kruszeski the “perfect glue guy. He gives it his all.”
Smithtown (1-11, 1-7) was at a disadvantage with only eight players available (including two freshmen) because of injury and illness. The Knights were missing their big man, Stephen Conge, and sixth man, Giuseppe Crilly.
“You have to worry about foul trouble,” Smithtown coach Dan Skaritka said. “That’s no excuse, though, because it’s five-on-five and you got to show up and play.”
The Knights brought effort, but the Settlers brought the baskets, taking the lead midway through the first quarter and pulling away with it.
Russell had five points to help fuel a 12-2 run that gave Southold an 18-8 lead early in the second quarter. But the real coup de grace was a paralyzing 22-1 stretch that made it 40-15 by halftime. Grathwohl (seven) and Russell combined for 13 of those points. Southold outscored Smithtown, 26-7, in the second quarter when Russell had eight points and the Settlers dropped in 10 of 15 field-goal attempts.
Can you say game over?
“Honestly, I thought it was going to be closer, but the first half we just couldn’t handle the pressure,” said Skaritka.
Smithtown had almost as many turnovers (23) as rebounds (28). By comparison, Southold crashed the boards for 49 rebounds and turned the ball over 14 times.
Smithtown’s Josh Magnum scored 16 points and Gabriel Gibson added 12. Josh Rivers pulled down 10 boards to go with his eight points.
Southold not only wants to get into the playoffs, but the Settlers want a playoff win. An overtime loss to Bishop McGann-Mercy in a Suffolk Class C outbracket game last year didn’t sit well with the Settlers.
“Our goal all season has been to get over that hump,” Russell said of a playoff win.
First things first. The Settlers would have to qualify for the playoffs first. Of their remaining four games, three are on the road against Greenport, Pierson and Shelter Island before they close the regular season with a home game against Ross.
What are Southold’s chances of getting into the postseason?
“I feel confident,” Kruszeski said. “We have a great team. I feel we have a more playoff-ready team than last year.”
Photo caption: Southold’s Steven Russell (28 points, 11 rebounds) splits Smithtown Christian’s Josh Rivers, left, and Gabriel Gibson while attempting a layup. (Credit: Garret Meade)