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Girls Basketball: Tuckers fall when their shots don’t

There’s just something about Port Jefferson.

Maybe it’s the Royals’ sharp shooting skill. Or their tenacious defense. Or their strength in grabbing rebounds off the boards.

Then again, it could just be Port Jefferson’s total package.

Whatever the case is, one thing is undeniable: Port Jefferson has Mattituck’s number.

Port Jefferson has won all three games between the two high school girls basketball teams this season by an average margin of 16.3 points. That includes second-seeded Mattituck’s 42-28 loss to the top-seeded League VII champions in the Suffolk County Class B final Friday night at Centereach High School. Port Jefferson (15-3) denied the Tuckers (14-8) what would have been a fifth straight county title.

This season Port Jefferson has proven to be a thorn in Mattituck’s side. Why is that?

“I wish I knew,” Mattituck senior guard Sarah Santacroce said. “Honestly, I think they’re just not like many other teams we’ve faced. They’re not like your typical short, athletic [team] like we’re used to playing against. They’re bigger. They move the ball quickly around, and their shooting is outstanding. I think that gave us a hard time.”

The Royals clamped down on Mattituck’s top player, Mackenzie Hoeg, and contested shots. Mattituck’s shooting, like the weather outside, was frigid. Too many missed close-range shots contributed to 20.8% shooting from the field (10 of 48). Santacroce hit Mattituck’s only three-pointer. Its 22 other attempts from beyond the arc were off target.

“We did everything we needed to do except we couldn’t put the ball in the basket, and that hurt us,” Mattituck coach Steve Van Dood said. “A lot of missed layups, a lot of in-and-outs.”

Hoeg, who averages 17 points per game, was held to seven points. The senior made one field goal from 10 attempts and shot 5-for-6 from the foul line. In her previous two games against Port Jefferson, she tallied 20 and 15 points.

Hoeg was visibly shaken and indicated she preferred not to talk after the game.

Mattituck never found its game in what started out as a slow, plodding first quarter. The Tuckers held three brief leads during that quarter on Hoeg’s running bouncer that fell in off the rim, Abby Woods’ layup off her steal and Santacroce’s three-pointer.

Evelyn Walker had the first five points in a 10-2 Port Jefferson surge spanning the first and second quarters that left the Royals holding a 15-9 lead. An Abigail Rolfe layup sent the Royals to their locker room at halftime with a six-point edge.

Mattituck opened the third quarter with a neat back-door layup by Aniah Thompson off a feed from Aaliyah Shorter to pull within 20-16. The Tuckers got no closer than that.

Samantha Ayotte had six points to help fuel a 12-0 Port Jefferson run that made it 32-16 late in the third quarter.

“Once we got on that little run, that’s when we knew we had it,” said Keith Buehler, who coaches Port Jefferson along with Jesse Rosen.

Mattituck wasn’t quite finished yet, though. As hard as it was for the Tuckers to find the basket, they reeled off 10 straight points in the fourth quarter to cut the Port Jefferson lead to 32-26. But the Royals wrapped up the victory with a game-ending 10-2 burst.

“They knocked down shots,” Van Dood said. “We just couldn’t hit them.”

Santacroce, known primarily for her defense, picked up her offensive game, finishing with 10 points. “I show up when I need to, so I guess that’s what happened,” said Mattituck’s only double-figure scorer.

Walker canned three three-pointers and had 13 points while Rolfe added nine.

The Royals dominated the boards, outrebounding Mattituck, 41-16. The Tuckers had only three offensive rebounds. Samantha Ayotte pulled down 14 rebounds and Rolfe collected 11 for Port Jefferson.

Next up for Port Jefferson will be the Suffolk Class B-C final against Pierson/Bridgehampton/Shelter Island (12-8) on Tuesday at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue. The Royals also have a regional semifinal against the Nassau County champion March 9 at Newfield High School.

Port Jefferson added this to the two other county championships it won in 1927 and 2017, according to Rosen. “This is definitely something special,” he said.

As for Mattituck, Santacroce said: “The season’s had its up and downs, but all in all, I love the girls and I couldn’t have asked for a better season. There isn’t a day we don’t laugh.”

On this night, there were some tears, too.