“I got this.”
Those were the words Southold senior guard Nick Grathwohl said to his teammates during a timeout with 11 seconds left in the Suffolk County Class C Championship against top-seed Pierson at East Hampton High School on Friday night.
Down just two points after mounting a furious comeback in the final quarter—which the Settlers went into trailing 50-39–Southold head coach Lucas Grigonis drew up a play for the tenacious senior and leading scorer to drive to the hoop, and hopefully draw a foul. Instead, shortly after the play began, Grathwohl found himself with just enough daylight in one of his favorite places on the court—beyond the three-point arc—and, without hesitation, took a shot.
It fell easily through the net, causing the Southold fans sitting behind the bench to erupt in cheers. Pierson’s nearly half-court heave attempt in the final seconds was no good, and the Settlers walked away with a stunning upset of the Whalers.
It was the first county championship for the team since 2006.
Before Southold’s final possession, Pierson’s Henry Brooks was inadvertently fouled on an inbounds play, a mistake that could have put the game out of reach if Brooks had hit both free throws. Grathwohl was visibly frustrated, but Grigonis quickly told him to put the moment in the past and focus on the next move.
Grathwohl (who scored a season-high 30 points) delivered, leading his team to an improbable victory over a Pierson squad that went undefeated in League VIII play and beat the Settlers by a combined 45 points in two regular season games this year.
An exuberant and breathless Grathwohl described the final play with a nearly uncontainable smile after the game.
“When Brooks was taking a free throw, I looked at my bench and said, ‘I got this,’” he said. “We called timeout and drew up a play, and coach said to take it to the hoop and draw a foul. But I got two or three feet of space, and took a shot, and it fell.
“It felt great,” Grathwohl continued. “When I released it, I just thought, please Lord, put it in the net.”
According to Grathwohl, the turning point in the game came with 3:25 left, when Pierson’s standout sophomore guard Wilson Bennett fouled out, with the Whalers leading 55-43. Bennett scored 14 of his 20 points in what was a dominant third quarter for the Whalers, where they erased a 28-24 halftime deficit to take control of the game.
Knowing that one of Pierson’s most dynamic inside presences would be sidelined for the rest of the game gave the Grathwohl and his teammates an extra boost of confidence. And for Grathwohl, there’s nothing more exciting than the chance to be in a pressure-packed situation at the end of a game.
“Crunch time is my prime time,” he said. “I love the end of the game. That’s when I have to step up. I have to be there for my team.”
The strategy to intentionally foul the Whalers when they reached the double-bonus with two and a half minutes left was a risky one, but it paid off. Pierson, a normally strong free-throw shooting team, missed three of six free throw shots in the final minute (and were just 13 for 24 in the game), while Southold continued to make key plays. Southold scored 12 points in the final minute of the game—nine from Grathwohl, and three from Nick Eckhardt, who hit a key three-pointer with 41 seconds left to cut Pierson’s lead to 57-55.
“The kids responded well and they adapted well,” Grigonis said after the game. “That’s something we talk about a lot, and we’re obviously pleased with the results.”
Grigonis admitted that he had an “oh my god” moment when he saw Grathwohl release the game-winning three, but said he wasn’t surprised that the senior took that shot—and that it went in.
“He’s a shooter, and he doesn’t lack confidence,” Grigonis said. “I’ve been coaching for 10 years, and I’ve had moments like this before, in soccer and basketball, and sometimes you just have to ride with the emotion, and Nick is an emotional player. He’s very good under pressure and he really does live for these moments. He did what we needed him to do.”
The win sends the Settlers to the regional semifinals against the Nassau County champion on March 10. Before then, they’ll play in the non-elimination Section XI tournament, starting with a game against the Class D champion Smithtown Christian Wednesday at Centereach High School. The winner plays the Class B champion Feb. 22.
It was a stomach-punch kind of loss for the Whalers, who had their sights set on a county title after an undefeated run in League VIII this year. They were also hoping to avenge a loss to Southold in the Class C semifinal from last season (Greenport ultimately won the county title last year). Pierson’s first-year head coach, Will Fujita, played for Southold’s basketball team and graduated in 2012.
Grigonis was a boys soccer JV/assistant coach when Fujita was a junior and senior on the varsity soccer team, and after the game, had plenty of praise for both Fujita a strong Whalers team that had an impressive season.
“A lot of things had to go right for us to win this game,” he said. “And thanks to the basketball gods, they did.”
Corrections: A late foul on Southold was mistakenly attributed to Nick Grathwohl. Also, Grigonis was a boys soccer JV/assistant coach during Will Fujita’s junior and senior season, not for basketball. And Southold did not qualify for the playoffs in 2012. The county final was between Pierson and The Stony Brook School.