A year ago the boys’ basketball team watched their season end in a heartbreaking, 35-34 loss to Haldane in the Regional Final. In the immediate aftermath the mission in the hushed locker room was clear: get back here and win it next year.
With that lofty goal in mind, the Bears began the season with their sights set on a record fifth straight Suffolk Class C title. After going 3-3 in six non-league games to start the year, the Bears’ dreams of a trip upstate were grounded in a 27-point loss to Greenport in the league opener. A one-point loss at Pierson and a six-point setback at Bridgehampton followed in the next three games, leaving the Bears with a precarious 1-3 league record on January 20. Suddenly, a team that had State Championship aspirations found themselves in very real danger of missing the playoffs. Despite a flurry of injuries and illnesses over the ensuing two weeks, the Bears won six of their next eight games to clinch a 17th consecutive playoff berth.
In the opening round of the postseason, a trip to the Final Four still seemed impossibly far away as the Bears fell 13 points behind Port Jeff midway through the third quarter. Then, they unleashed an 18-0 run to seize a lead they would never relinquish. They next faced top-seeded Greenport in the Suffolk final and dispatched the heavily favored Porters by holding them 37 points below their scoring average. For a third straight season the Bears were back in the Regional Final.
This is the 44th season that the Bears have competed in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. The 43 previous teams had never made it to the State Final Four. Four have been close, losing tightly contested games in the state quarterfinals:
|2010||#4 Blind Brook||Section I||35-47|
|2013||#1 Pine Plains||Section IX||39-42|
|2015||#9 Haldane||Section I||32-39|
|2016||#4 Haldane||Section I||34-35|
This year’s team had its sights on a historic step for the program.
The encouraging messages that poured in from basketball alumni throughout last week and the number of alumni present at Suffolk County Community College/Selden on Saturday crystallized for the team how important this game was in Blue & White history. Over 250 fans swelled the stands, hoping to see the boys go where no previous team had gone before.
Their chances would hinge on the collective defensive pressure of Emil Vaughn, James Toney, and Harry Zhu who were tasked with limiting Millbrook’s prolific scorer, Humberto Cabrera, who had averaged 26.3 points in his previous three playoff games.
In the opening minute, Vaughn set the tone for the game by pilfering an inbounds pass away from Cabrera. The turnover led to the Bears’ first points, when Jyles Etienne drove along the baseline and finished a difficult reverse layup for an early 2-0 lead. After the Blazers tied the game, Etienne made an early statement play. The Bahamian big man swatted two shots on Millbrook’s ensuing possession, ignited a fast break, grabbed an offensive rebound off of the missed layup, and laid in the putback for a 4-2 lead. The Blazers grabbed 7-4 edge after a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws, but two more second chance baskets from Mac Bohuny and John Eshirow gave the Bears an 8-7 lead. A turnaround floater from the foul line by Brandon Providence gave them a 10-9 advantage after one quarter, a lead they would not relinquish.
The Bears opened the second frame with a 6-2 run. Bohuny scored on a steal and a layup, Eshirow followed with a layup, and Providence brought the Blue Fan Group to its feet with a 3-pointer to give the Bears a 16-11 edge. After Providence dropped in a baseline floater and a second 3-pointer, the Blue and White held a 21-15 advantage, despite playing without Etienne for most of the quarter who was sidelined with two fouls. Millbrook closed the half with a bucket and a free throw to leave the Bears up by three at the midway point. Thanks to the combined efforts of Vaughn, Toney, and Zhu, Cabrera had just six points at the half.
During the break, Providence focused the team by asking them, “Who are you playing for?” In the midst of a tight game with the weight of the program on their shoulders, the senior captain’s question helped the boys find the inspiration they needed to seize control of the game.
All season long the Bears had been a second half team and they showed it once again. After a Millbrook free throw cut their deficit to 21-19 thirty seconds into the half, the Bears shut them out for the remainder of the quarter. While the Bears’ championship defense reared its head yet again, the offense found its rhythm, scoring 15 straight points to close the quarter. After layups from Etienne and Vaughn, an Etienne block led to an acrobatic fast break finish from Providence that gave the Bears their biggest lead at 27-19. Bohuny then drained a corner 3-pointer that felt like an early dagger in a low-scoring game. With Millbrook reeling, Etienne and Toney followed with layups to extend the advantage to 34-19. Providence closed the quarter with a back-breaker, dropping in a buzzer-beating floater that kissed off the back of the rim and dropped in to give the Brook a 17-point lead with eight minutes to play. The victory was within reach.
During a season in which the Bears had a penchant for making wins more exciting than they needed to be (see: Rancho Solano, East Hampton, Bridgehampton, Port Jeff), Saturday’s fourth quarter was delightfully anticlimactic as the Bears’ lead mushroomed to as many as 22 points on the way to a 19-point victory. Millbrook finally ended their nearly eight-minute scoring drought early in the fourth, then assembled a full court press in a desperate attempt to get back into the game. The Bears knifed through the pressure as Bohuny took a hand-off from Etienne, raced up the right sideline, and gave a beautiful feed to Toney who laid in an uncontested layup that deflated the Blazers. Etienne followed with a 3-point play and Providence dropped in yet another acrobatic finish to leave the Bears up 43-21 on the way to a 45-27 victory.
The three-headed monster of Vaughn, Toney, and Zhu turned in a legendary defensive performance, holding the cagey Cabrera to just six points, and zero over the final 16 minutes. Providence paced the Bears with 16 points to go along with 3 steals. Every one of his scores, from the two 3-pointers in the second quarter, to the fastbreak layup, to the buzzer-beater, felt like momentum-seizing plays. Providence simply played like a senior captain on Saturday. Etienne was a force on both sides of the ball, scoring 13 points, pulling down 12 rebounds, and blocking 6 shots. Bohuny (7 points/11 rebounds), Toney (4), Eshirow (3), and Vaughn (2) rounded out the scoring.
|Team Stats||Stony Brook||Millbrook|
|Field Goal %||43.5% (20/46)||19.2% (9/47)|
|3-Point %||21.4% (3/14)||13.6% (3/22)|
|Free Throw %||25.0% (2/8)||75.0% (6/8)|
|Points off Turnovers||15||7|
|Second Chance Points||15||5|
|Points in the Paint||32||10|
The Bears are headed to the State Final Four and will face off against 5th-ranked Moravia (Section IV) on Friday, March 17 at 3:30pm at the Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghamton.