The Southold players had heard a lot about Center Moriches, the Suffolk County Class B boys basketball champion that is a virtual scoring machine, fully stocked with talent and primed to make a run at the state championship. Then again, to hear about the Red Devils is one thing — standing face to face with them on the court is something else entirely.
An indication of what awaited Southold was seen after Center Moriches’ Emond Frazier made a layup off the opening tip just four seconds into the Suffolk Class BCD final Saturday at Walt Whitman High School.
Yes, the First Settlers may have thought to themselves, this was going to be a tough one.
In a game in which Southold really had nothing to lose, heavily favored Center Moriches stormed to the win, scoring over 100 points for the fifth time this season for their ninth straight victory. Nae’jon Ward bagged 20 of his game-high 22 points in the first half of Center Moriches’ 107-55 rout.
If the Settlers (13-9) didn’t fully appreciate just how good Center Moriches (21-1) is, they surely do now.
“Their athleticism, oh my God, it’s insane,” Southold junior Jaishaun McRae said. “I heard about it. I did not expect it” like that.
Center Moriches has athletes, that’s for sure. It has players like the 6-5 Jaden Kealey, the 6-4 Frazier, Ward and Ahkee Anderson, the transfer from Greenport who entered the contest averaging 23.5 points a game, per Newsday. And the Red Devils have more.
Center Moriches, a state semifinalist last year and winner of four straight league titles, is ranked second in the state behind Lowville in the New York State Sports Writers Association’s Class B rankings.
“They’re a great squad,” Southold coach Lucas Grigonis said. “There’s a reason why they’re now [21-1]. We have a lot of respect for them and what they do and their players. Yeah, we knew what we were getting into today.”
Ward was one of 10 Red Devils in the scoring column and half of them reached double figures. Frazier and Kealey each poured in 18 points, Anderson had 14 and Dayrien Franklin added 12. Kealey also grabbed 14 rebounds.
Center Moriches’ dominance on the boards helped. The Red Devils came down with 46 rebounds to Southold’s 29. And Center Moriches’ pressure defense helped force 28 turnovers while the Red Devils turned the ball over only eight times themselves.
Southold’s top scoring threat, Nick Grathwohl, did not play in the second half as a preventive measure. The senior guard ran into early foul trouble. He picked up his second and third personal fouls with 3:43 left in the first quarter, the third coming on an unsportsmanlike conduct call that cost him a technical foul. A second technical foul against the fiery Grathwohl would have brought with it an automatic one-game suspension, preventing him from playing in the Southeast Region Class C semifinal against East Rockaway (8-11) March 10 at Centereach High School. Grigonis said Grathwohl was upset about being kept on the bench in the second half, but the coach said he didn’t want to risk losing him for the East Rockaway game.
A buzzer-beating three-pointer before halftime left Grathwohl with seven points.
Nick Eckhardt led Southold with 12 points and John Kaelin added 11.
Asked what was the toughest thing his team had to deal with, Grigonis answered: “Our nerves. It seems like some of my guys played scared. We played hesitant, you know. [Assistant coach Joseph Irwin] and I tried to give them a simple, yet effective game plan, and when nerves and fear take over, things go out the window.”
Center Moriches used first-half runs of 19-0 and 12-0 to help itself to a comfortable 61-27 halftime lead. The high-flying Red Devils had first-half dunks by Kealey and Frazier. Among the team’s 49 field goals were 25 layups, helping account for its 57% shooting.
“It was like a little bit intimidating coming in,” Eckhardt said. “The first half we looked scared, and then the second half we just came around. We didn’t really care what the score was. We just played tough.”
McRae said: “We tried not to let them hit a hundred, but they did. We didn’t do what we were supposed to at times. We were discombobulated towards the end.”
It could be argued that the game was good preparation for facing East Rockaway.
“Obviously, that’s the best team we’ve played all year, so [it was] good preparation for our next game,” Eckhardt said. “That’s probably the biggest game of the year for us.”