Today is Groundhog Day, a yearly event when Punxsutawney Phil famously predicts an early spring or six more weeks of winter depending on whether or not he sees his shadow. The “holiday” has also become synonymous with the 1993 film that bears its name in which Bill Murray comically relives the same exact day over and over again.
This afternoon felt a bit like the movie version of Groundhog Day. A season ago, the boys’ basketball team lost a close game at Shelter Island on Jan. 31, 56-51. On Saturday (Jan. 30) the Bears lost a close game at Shelter Island, 54-53. Last season the Bears followed that loss to the Indians with a huge victory over Pierson on Feb. 4 that clinched the #1 seed in the Suffolk County Class C playoffs. This afternoon the Bears followed their loss to the Indians with a huge victory over Pierson that clinched at least a share of the League VIII Championship, the 150th in the history of the school. Deja vu can be so sweet.
The Bears built an early lead, then watched as a barrage of Pierson 3-pointers seized the game’s momentum. But, as has been the case vs. Pierson for the last four seasons, the Bears won it with defense, outscoring the Whalers 19-2 in the fourth quarter for a 63-49 victory.
Jyles Etienne opened the game’s scoring with a tough layup inside. Pierson responded on the ensuing possession with a 3-pointer to take an early lead. After scores by Harry Zhu and Luke O’Connor, Pierson cut the deficit to 6-5 with a pair of free throws. The Bears grabbed early control of the game with a 7-0 spurt, ignited by a Zhu 3-pointer, and finished with back-to-back scores from O’Connor and Mac Bohuny to give the Brook a 13-5 lead. Consecutive scores by the Whalers halved the deficit, but Brandon Providence pushed the lead back to seven with a trifecta from the corner. Pierson scored to close the quarter, leaving the Bears up 16-11 after one.
Pierson caught fire in the second frame, connecting on four 3-pointers on the way to a 20-point quarter. Etienne provided a scoring punch for the Blue and White to keep it close, tying the game at 24-24 on a score plus the foul, and grabbing a monster offensive rebound and finishing the layup to give the Bears a brief 26-24 lead. The game remained tight in a quarter that saw four ties and three lead changes. Zhu gave the Bears a 30-28 lead with a pretty drive through traffic and a tough layup, but the Whalers buried a 3-pointer to take a 31-30 lead into the break.
The Whalers’ hot shooting continued when they canned a 3-pointer to open up the second half. Etienne responded with a huge offensive rebound, sprawling on the floor and corralling the ball with one hand before dishing a pass to O’Connor for a layup. The big Bahamian then tied the game on the next possession with another finish inside. Four straight points from Bohuny gave the Brook 38-36 lead midway through the frame, but Pierson connected on yet another 3-pointer to regain the lead for the remainder of the quarter. They pushed their advantage to as much as five points toward the end of the period, but a basket from O’Connor in the final minute left the Bears within 44-47 heading into the final period.
The Whalers hit seven 3-pointers over the second and third quarters and showed no signs of simmering down, which made their cold shooting in the fourth such a welcome surprise. After a Chester Kayonga 3-pointer tied the game on the Bears’ first possession, the Whalers scored a layup to retake a 49-47 lead. Inexplicably, they would be Pierson’s last points of the game. Kayonga hit his second consecutive 3-pointer to retake a lead the Bears would never relinquish and ignite a 16-0 run to close the game. The Bears’ defense ramped up on the next two Pierson possessions, leading to a monster block from Etienne and steals from Kayonga and Bohuny. Kayonga extended the Bear lead with his third straight connection from deep, then followed with a layup for 11 unanswered points of his own that opened up a 55-49 lead.
The dagger came on the Whaler’s next possession when Pierson overthrew their point guard on a baseline out of bounds play, leading to a great individual effort from Providence who stole the ball and raced to the basket for a contested layup that brought the Blue Fan Group to its feet and gave the Brook an eight-point advantage. Despite the momentum shift, the Bears continued to play lockdown defense. Bohuny stole the ball on the next possession, leading to an O’Connor layup that gave the Bears a double-digit lead. The Whalers resorted to fouling in order to lengthen the game, but Providence and Kayonga connected on all four of their free throws to close out the 63-49 victory.
O’Connor led all scorers with 18 points. Kayonga, who was sidelined with foul trouble for most of the first half and the entire third quarter, caught fire in the fourth, scoring all of his 13 points in the frame. Bohuny and Etienne each netted 10. Etienne completed a hard-fought double-double with 14 rebounds. Providence and Zhu rounded out the balanced scoring attack with 7 points each.
For the senior trio of O’Connor, Kayonga, and Rob Sparacio, it was their last game on the Swanson hardwood, but what a way to go out. The win clinched at least a share of the League VIII Championship, adding another banner for the boys’ program that has covered the walls with six since 2012. The win moves the Bears’ league record to 10-1 with one game to play. Bridgehampton already has two league losses, but can earn a piece of the title with a victory over the Brook on Friday night at the Bee Hive.
This is the Bears’ fourth League Championship in the last five years and the ninth in coach Mike Hickey’s career alongside titles from 1993, 1994, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2012, 2013, and 2014.
The Bears are now 36-13 vs. Pierson under coach Hickey and have won seven straight against their archrivals. They close out the regular season on Friday night at Bridgehampton before gearing up for the Suffolk County Championship on Saturday Feb. 13 @ 2:30pm at Suffolk Community College–Selden.