When you’ve been around enough sporting events, you can sense when it’s not your team’s day. It’s a feeling that wells up from the stomach and radiates outward in nauseating waves. In the waning moments of the first half of Thursday’s Suffolk Class C semifinal, that feeling began to infiltrate Swanson Gymnasium. Port Jeff, making their first playoff appearance since 2012, had surged to a double-digit lead behind a disruptive 2-3 zone defense and timely shooting. The Bears were having trouble finishing on one end and preventing the Royals from penetrating on the other. It felt like it was finally going to be the Royals’ day after six straight losses to the Bears.
At that moment, when the nerves of the Blue and White faithful were fraying, when Port Jeff was splashing 3-pointers, when the calls were not going our way, one Bear had a smile on his face: Mac Bohuny. In that moment, the senior captain perfectly embodied the words of Winston Churchill when he said, “I like a man who grins when he fights.” Some shy away from a challenge, others rise to face it and even enjoy the crucible it provides. At a time when hope was beginning to wane, the Bears’ Swiss Army Knife–who currently leads the team in points, rebounds, and assists–instilled a confidence and belief that the Bears would need in order to earn their 10th trip to the County Championship in 11 years.
The Royals burst out of the gates with energy and determination, seizing a 9-0 lead in a blink. James Toney ended the run with his first 3-pointer of the season, but the Royals scored on back-to-back possessions to push the lead to 13-3. The Bears scored the last last four points of the quarter behind a hanging layup from Bohuny and a hook from Jyles Etienne, who was also fouled on the play. Despite a mediocre first eight minutes, the Bears trailed by just six heading into the second quarter.
The Royals pushed the lead back to 10 points with a 3-pointer early in the second frame. Brandon Providence responded with a pretty floater, but the Royals still held a nine-point lead in the final minute of the half. Then, in the waning seconds of the quarter, Harry Zhu got his defender off-balance with a shot fake and pulled up off the dribble for a huge 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Brook into the break trailing, 17-23.
The Bears have been a second half team all season long and hoped to make a run to begin the third quarter. Instead, the Royals drilled two 3-pointers to stretch their lead to 13. Etienne and Bohuny followed with four straight free throws, but each time the Bears looked poised for a run, the Royals answered. This time they scored a transition layup through a foul and connected on another 3-pointer to push the lead back to 13 at 34-21 with 3:39 remaining in the quarter. Improbably, when the Port Jeff offense seemed to be at its zenith, the Bears would hold them scoreless for the next 8 minutes and 25 seconds. In the meantime they unleashed an 18-0 run that would leave them up 39-34 with less than four minutes remaining in the game.
The spurt began with an offensive rebound and layup from Toney. Providence followed with three free throws to cut the deficit to 26-34; however, the Royals were still very much in control with an eight-point lead and possession of the ball with 12 seconds left in the quarter. The Bears were in need of a spark.
Emil Vaughn dropped a bomb.
The Bear defense caused the Royals to cough up the ball with four seconds remaining. It pinballed back and forth around mid-court as both teams attempted to corral it before finally ending up in the hands of Vaughn with just enough time for an off-balance heave from 35 feet, with a defender in his face. Miraculously, the shot found the bottom of the cup, unleashing bedlam in the Blue Fan Group. Vaughn saved his first 3-pointer of the season for its most crucial moment as he carved the deficit back to 29-34. The lift the shot provided cannot be overstated as the Bears entered the fourth quarter with a belief and determination they had not displayed all game.
Bohuny stroked two free throws to open the quarter. Etienne followed with a jump stop and floater to cut Port Jeff’s lead to a point, the Bears’ smallest deficit of the game. On the ensuing play, the Bears’ full court pressure caused a loose ball that Etienne, Vaughn, Providence, and a Royal pounced on, forcing a jump ball that gave the ball back to the Bears. In that moment, despite still trailing, it felt like the Bears were firmly in control. They made the most of the extra possession as Bohuny drained a corner 3-pointer to give them their first lead of the game with 6:13 remaining. They would never trail again.
After a Vaughn steal on the other end, Seamus Scanlon banked in a 3-pointer to push the Bear advantage to 39-34 and cap the 18-0 run. Port Jeff finally scored with 3:14 remaining, but Etienne and Bohuny combined for four free throws to seize a seven-point advantage with 1:35 left. Port Jeff scored a quick layup and fouled Bohuny, who connected on both ends of a 1-and-1 to provide a seemingly insurmountable seven-point cushion with 49.2 seconds left. Port Jeff connected on just one-of-four free throws on their next two possessions and were forced to foul again with 36.4 seconds left. The Bears missed both shots from the line but Etienne grabbed the rebound and was fouled again with 34.5 seconds left. After the whistle, a Royal was then hit with a technical foul, giving the Bears four free throws, all but securing the Blue and White victory. But the Bears would miss all four free throws. In all, the Bears missed eight consecutive free throws in the final minute of the game, wasting an opportunity to seal the victory and leaving the door open for the Royals to stage a comeback.
The Royals scored a layup to cut the deficit to 45-41, but Bohuny hit two free throws with 24 seconds remaining to stretch the advantage back to six. On the next possession the worst case scenario nearly occurred as Port Jeff hit a 3-pointer while being fouled, sending them to the line with a chance to carve their deficit to just two points. They missed the free throw and Bohuny hit both of his with 15.9 seconds left for a 49-44 lead. Port Jeff responded with yet another difficult 3-pointer to trail 47-49 with Bohuny at the line with 7.9 seconds left. The senior connected on the first but was short on the second. The carom fell to the Royals who raced up the court. They got a decent look at a 3-pointer, but it was well defended by Bohuny and Etienne as the shot shot missed the rim to give the Bears a thrilling 50-47 victory.
Bohuny was the high-scorer for the Bears with 18, despite connecting on just two field goals. He was an impressive 13-for-16 from the free throw line and scored 12 points in the pivotal fourth quarter. He added 16 rebounds, seven of which came on the offensive glass. Etienne dropped in 13 points, pulled down a gaudy 20 rebounds (10 offensive) and blocked 8 shots, leaving him just two rejections shy of a triple-double. Toney (5 points), Providence (5), Vaughn (3), Zhu (3), and Scanlon (3) rounded out the scoring. Despite the impressive stat lines of Bohuny and Etienne, the Bears could not have won without Vaughn. The back-up point guard came in for the first time midway through the third quarter and his energy gave the Bears a crucial lift. His miraculous 3-pointer provided the highlight of the season, so far, and he spearheaded the Blue and White defense over the final 10 minutes.
With the victory, the Bears move on to the Suffolk County Championship for the sixth straight year and have their sights set on a fifth consecutive title. They will face top-seeded Greenport on Sunday, February 19 at 5:00pm at Suffolk County Community College–Selden.