Boys Basketball: Nicholson returns, Tuckers clinch playoff spot

Looking for a healthy shot in the arm, the Mattituck Tuckers turned to a player who had not been feeling well at all lately.

Four days after exiting a boys basketball game in the first quarter at Babylon, Chris Nicholson made his return to the Tuckers Tuesday night. Despite having to battle flu-like symptoms in the preceding days, Nicholson showed no signs of weakness. On the contrary, the senior forward, normally a starter, brought plenty of energy off the bench as Mattituck romped, 72-53, at Hampton Bays High School, clinching a third straight playoff berth in the process.

Afterward, Mattituck coach Paul Ellwood chuckled when someone suggested that he may have found a sixth man. Nicholson, who missed the first game of the season because he didn’t have enough practices, had started Mattituck’s other 15 games before Tuesday’s Suffolk County League VII contest.

“I haven’t seen him since the first quarter in Babylon,” Ellwood said. “He left and we hadn’t seen him since.

“I just left him on the bench and threw him in there to see how he looked and then he was like exploding, getting offensive rebounds, putbacks and what a jolt off the bench, and these guys were teasing me, the coaches, ‘Why haven’t you been bringing him in off the bench all year?’ That was great. He gave us a big surge when we needed it.”

Nicholson scored seven of his nine points in the third quarter when Mattituck outscored Hampton Bays, 25-7. He also came through with six rebounds and five steals.

Mattituck’s Xavier Allen, who entered the game with the highest scoring average in Suffolk (31.4 points), according to Newsday, dropped in 26 points on 10-for-19 shooting, including 3 of 5 from three-point distance.

“No one can guard him,” said teammate Rashad Lawson, who had nine rebounds.

Mattituck (15-2, 5-2) also had nice games from others, too, like Luke Woods (14 points, six assists) and Isaiah Johnson (13 points, eight assists, six rebounds, four steals).

Lucas Brown led Hampton Bays (10-7, 1-6) with 15 points while Jack McNamara and Steven Mora added nine apiece.

Although Mattituck looked every bit a playoff team from the season’s earliest moments, being expected to reach the postseason is one thing, actually doing it is something else.

“It’s a little step to the bigger picture that we have in mind,” Allen said. “We’re not done yet, not even close. We just got to keep playing as a team, keep playing together.”

Securing a playoff spot is no small relief for Ellwood. “We had to make the playoffs this year with this team,” he said. “There was no question we had to get it done. It wasn’t easy. Nothing’s a given.”

Having Nicholson back is another big relief. Ellwood said the prospect of him missing games left the Tuckers “one sprained ankle away from having a tough time to get in” to the playoffs.

Nicholson said during Friday’s game he “started getting chills and I wasn’t feeling well and I ended up having to leave the game.”

How did he feel in his first game back?

“At first, I just wanted to get back into it,” he said. “Being off for a couple of days, just sitting around doing nothing felt terrible. So, getting back on the court felt great.”

Nicholson brings a lot of heart — and more — to the team. “He’s the best athlete on the court,” said Allen.

Lawson lauded Nicholson for being “one of the hardest-working people I know. Every time he gets on the court, he’s so aggressive. He’s so passionate about what he does. He doesn’t always have to score. He focuses on the defensive end. He focuses on the boards and not everything’s about points, so that’s a great thing about him. He’s so team-oriented.”

A 14-1 run, with seven points from Allen, gave Mattituck a 20-9 jump early in the second quarter. But Hampton Bays came back and took the lead, 24-22, on a three-point play by Brown.

That was the Baymen’s last lead. Mattituck used its explosive offense to expand a six-point halftime edge with a big third quarter in which it shot 11-for-22. The Tuckers were up, 56-32, entering the fourth.

“We just come to have fun,” Allen said. “When you have fun you score more.”

Now, the Tuckers have the playoffs to look forward to after remaining regular-season games against Center Moriches, Southampton and Port Jefferson.

And what about Nicholson?

“I think he’s better,” Ellwood said. “I just didn’t know how, in this hot gym, his legs were going to hold up after being in bed for three days.”

Pretty well, it turned out.