As he had done so many times in the game, Nick Grathwohl fearlessly drove down the lane. Surrounded by three Pierson defenders as he entered the paint, the Southold junior barreled toward the basket, somehow avoiding the outstretched arms that engulfed him, jumped off both feet and used his right hand to drop the ball into the basket.
The gym inside Southold High School, filled to near capacity, erupted.
The First Settlers, who trailed nearly the entire second half, had taken a 58-56 lead with 10 seconds left in a Class C playoff outbracket game Monday night.
An elusive playoff victory was in reach, but the First Settlers still needed one stop.
This time, it was junior Steven Russell who delivered.
Pierson raced the ball up court after the Grathwohl basket and called timeout. On the final play, Russell blocked an outside shot from the corner, and the ball fell harmlessly toward the court as the buzzer sounded.
In dramatic fashion, the First Settlers emerged 58-56 victors to set up an all-North Fork county final Tuesday night against No. 1 Greenport. That game is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at Center Moriches High School, although poor weather in the forecast may potentially cause a postponement.
“It’s kind of like being on a roller coaster,” Grathwohl said of Monday’s game.
It was the third time Southold (12-7) beat Pierson (10-10) this season. The combined total margin of victory in those three games: Eight.
“You always hear how tough it is to beat a team three times in one season,” Russell said. “We just tried to come in with confidence. We knew we could match up with them well. And we got it done.”
The First Settlers held Pierson to just two points over the final half of the fourth quarter. Grathwohl, who led all scorers with 28 points, drove baseline and delivered a bucket with about 1:20 left in the game to tie the score at 56. The teams were never separated by more than three points in the final quarter.
Southold’s defense came up clutch on the next possession, forcing a shot clock violation. That set up the First Settlers for a chance to regain their first lead since briefly at the end of the third quarter.
Southold coach Lucas Grigonis said on that possession he wanted his team to burn some clock to limit the time Pierson would have on its next possession.
“We want to get the best shot that we can in that moment,” he said.
On Pierson’s last attempt, Southold guard Peter Schaefer dribbled toward the right, got past his defender, and dished the ball into the corner for Wilson Bennett, who had 27 points.
“I just needed to make a big-time play to seal it,” said Russell, who managed to leap and extend his left arm for the block without fouling. “I tried to trust my instincts on that one.”
It appeared the shot was just inside the 3-point arc. The referee did not immediately signal it as a 3-pointer, which would have been for the win.
Russell (11 points) agreed it was the biggest block of his career.
“Absolutely,” he said.
The First Settlers achieved their third goal they had set out for themselves at the start of the year. The first was to make the playoffs, the second was to secure a home playoff game and the third was to win a game.
They accomplished all three. Now they will play for the first county title since 2006. It won’t come easy against a Greenport team that has its sights set on a return trip to the state final four. The Porters won by 33 and 34 points in the regular season.
Last year, the First Settlers lost an outbracket game to Bishop McGann-Mercy. The difference this year was experience, Grigonis said.
“The experience and maturity that we needed last year and didn’t have to execute at the end of games, they’ve kind of built on this year and almost had a chip on their shoulders,” he said.
Grigonis praised the effort of senior Max Kruszeski for helping to limit Pierson’s Henry Brooks to 10 points. Brooks scored 26 in the last meeting between the two teams.
Cole Brigham added 10 points for Southold and Nick Eckhardt chipped in seven.
Pierson scored the first four points of the second half to take its biggest lead of the game at 39-31. The game seemed to hang in the balance. The First Settlers knew they could mount a comeback. After all, they rallied from 17 down in the previous game against Pierson.
The First Settlers didn’t let it get to that point as Grathwohl put the team on his shoulders with an 8-0 run of his own to tie the game. From that point forward, neither team could gain any separation.
“Just winning it here for the fans, who were going crazy, it’s the greatest feeling,” Grathwohl said.
Top photo caption: Southold junior Nick Grathwohl scores the go-ahead basket with 10 seconds left. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)