Southold was caught between the Rocks and a hard place.
It was a rough start to the Southeast Region Class C semifinal/Long Island boys basketball final for the First Settlers. Aidan O’Connor and Franklin Infante made layups, Kyle Barth drained a three-point shot, Infante converted another layup off his own steal and, voila, just like that it was 9-0 East Rockaway 121 seconds into the game.
Not exactly the sort of start Southold had hoped for.
To its credit, Southold fought its way back and twice tied the score in the second quarter, but was never able to pull in front. East Rockaway won, 72-65, Tuesday at Centereach High School for its third Long Island championship.
The end hit the Settlers hard. It marked the conclusion of the high school playing careers for 10 Southold seniors, including Nick Grathwohl, who squatted with his head down and his hands to his face while the Rocks celebrated. Grathwohl is one of 10 seniors on the team who total 22 seasons of varsity experience.
“I’m proud of our effort,” Southold coach Lucas Grigonis said. “We didn’t always execute, but our effort and energy was there for 32 minutes. This sport is hard, it’s cruel and unforgiving, and you have to be able to perform. You have to be damn near perfect to win these games at the state level.”
Southold (14-10) was far from perfect on this day. Playing their first game in 17 days, the Settlers showed some rust to go with nervousness as they fell behind, 17-4, on an O’Connor layup with 1:17 left in the first quarter.
“That 9-0 run obviously hurt,” Southold’s Nick Eckhardt said. “Everyone was nervous.”
When a three-pointer by Jaishaun McRae bounced in during the final seconds of the first quarter, it was only Southold’s second successful field goal.
Eckhardt scored seven of his 13 points during a 12-0 run that evened the score at 21-21. Shortly after East Rockaway (9-12) pulled ahead again, Cole Brigham dropped a three ball, tying it at 25-25.
For all of Southold’s first-quarter troubles, it trailed by only three points at halftime.
“Our start was poor,” Grigonis said. “I think that their effort in the second quarter was phenomenal, to come back and just make it a game. I think we looked a little tired at half because of the amount of energy we had to use during that second quarter to make it a game again.”
Southold trailed by four early in the third quarter, but superb play by O’Connor (26 points, nine rebounds) and Infante (20 points, eight assists) kept the Settlers at bay.
“They worked hard, that’s the bottom line,” said Southold senior Steven Russell, who played about six minutes coming off the bench, having appeared in only nine games this season because of hamstring trouble. “They just hustled for every loose ball. Their free-throw shooting was amazing, too. I felt like that was a huge difference.”
East Rockaway shot 52.2% from the field to Southold’s 47.1%. But the Rocks really did damage at the free-throw line, where they went 18-for-26. Southold made only 5 of 12 foul shots.
Nick DeNicola drilled a three and sank a pair of free throws to pull Southold within 62-57 with 1:57 left in the game, but time slipped away from the Settlers. Three of them — DeNicola, Eckhardt and John Kaelin — fouled out in the final 38.6 seconds.
“They played their hearts out,” Infante said of the Settlers. “So did we, though.”
Grigonis said, “It just wasn’t our night.”
Southold had its greatest season since 2006, when it won its first Long Island and regional titles, advancing as far as the state semifinals. The current Settlers had to navigate injuries and illness in order to win their fourth county championship and return to their first Long Island final since 2006.
Grathwohl, who shot 7-for-15 (3 of 7 from three-point distance), scored 18 points, giving him a final career total of 1,134 for three seasons. Brigham had 10 points and seven assists.
“Oh man, definitely a great season,” Grathwohl said. “Nothing less than that. We accomplished so much, as individuals, as a team, as a program really, as a community as well.”
Before the Southold players finally emerged from a postgame meeting with reddened faces, Grigonis spoke about what the Settlers accomplished.
“This group reset the bar higher than it’s been in about 15 years, and that’s kind of the biggest takeaway for all of us, really,” he said. “They put us back on the map, and hopefully we’re here to stay.”