The history of our girls’ basketball program is crowded with memorable postseason moments. Clutch shots. Thrilling finishes. Trophies. Banners. Seven Suffolk County Championships in eight years left little room in our memory banks for much more, but tonight our girls forced us to find space for yet another incredible playoff moment.
As the Bears took the floor in Sag Harbor this evening, they did so against a team that had dismissed them by 24 points just seven days earlier on the same patch of hardwood. They also took the floor with no collective playoff experience. Pierson, on the other hand, was used to these games, having been to the last four County Championships and winning three of them. The Whalers’ cozy gymnasium swelled for the first game of a girls’ and boys’ playoff double-header, ready to cheer their girls on to Monday’s county final. But the Bears refused to be a mere prop in Pierson’s celebration and showed remarkable resilience and strength in a game that became a microcosm of their entire season.
The Whalers jumped out of the gates with a 6-0 run, but a Leka Lee-Maeba putback got the Bears on the board. Beth Felix followed with her first of three 3-pointers to cut the deficit to 5-6. Pierson answered with a 3-pointer, Niamh Scanlon knocked down a jumper, and the Whalers responded with another score to take a 12-8 lead after the first quarter.
The Whalers pushed their lead back to six in the opening moments of the second quarter, but the Bears fought back, a theme that cannot be overstated in this game. Felix canned a 3-pointer and Jessica Nwachukwu scored a putback to pull within 13-14. The Bears took a brief 15-14 lead on a Scanlon jumper, but excitement was quickly tempered when Felix picked up her fourth foul with 3:16 left in the second quarter. Things looked even more bleak when starter and key scorer Danielle Graves was lost for the game with an ankle injury. With challenges threatening to suffocate them on every side, the Bears somehow found a way to keep fighting. After briefly giving back the lead, Nwachukwu gave the Brook a 17-16 edge on a jumper, but Pierson closed the half on a 5-0 run to take a 17-21 lead into the half.
Felix opened the third quarter by connecting on 1-of-2 free throws to pull the Bears back within three, but the Whalers reeled off six straight points to take their largest lead of the game, 27-18. Pierson was starting to click. Felix was a foul away from watching the rest of the game. Graves’ ankle was cradled by a bag of ice. It would have been easy to give up the fight, but the Bears just kept battling. Nwachukwu came up with another big putback to cut the deficit to 20-27. A Felix free throw brought the deficit to 21-27, but a Pierson bucket pushed their lead back to 29-21. Again the Bears responded, scoring the last four points of the quarter, thanks to a layup and free throw from Nwachukwu and a free throw from Felix. The spurt brought the Bears back within striking distance, down just 25-29 heading into the final frame.
The Whalers scored to extend their advantage to six on their opening possession, but a Felix and-1 halved the Bear deficit. Pierson showed their championship mettle with an emphatic answer. After a Pierson score upped their lead to five, the Whalers’ star Chastin Giles stole the ball, took it to the hole, drew the foul, and completed the 3-point play to push the Pierson lead back to eight points with 6:30 left. The Pierson faithful rose to their feet, feeling their grip tightening on another postseason victory, yet once again, the Bears refused to give in. Felix followed with a steal and layup and another driving layup. Then, after a Lee-Maeba block, Nwachukwu came up with yet another putback to bring the Bears back within 34-36. The Whalers answered with four straight free throws to push their cushion back to 40-34. Lee-Maeba drained a jumper, but Pierson answered again to keep their lead at six, 43-37, with under two minutes left. Coach Tim Stone called a timeout and the language on the sideline remained resilient in the face of adversity: “There’s plenty of time. We’ve got this. Keep fighting.”
Felix breathed life into the team and the hearty band of Stony Brook fans who made the East End trek with her third 3-pointer at the 1:31 mark. Incredibly, despite all of the setbacks, the Bears were in a one-possession game with just over a minute left, but there was plenty more work to do. After a Pierson misfire, Felix drew a foul on the baseline and made the layup, but the basket was waved off. She instead drained both free throws to pull the Brook within a point with 1:10 remaining. After a missed jumper from Giles, the Bears had the ball with a chance to take their first lead since midway through the second quarter.
Felix lined up a carbon copy of her last 3-pointer, but found only iron. The ball caromed to the far side where Scanlon, the newly minted League VII Rookie of the Year, corralled the board between two Whalers, then drove baseline and connected on a floater to thrust the Bears ahead with just 41 seconds remaining. Pierson missed a 3-pointer on their next possession and grabbed the offensive rebound, but Felix came up with a clutch steal and was fouled en route to the basket. She hit both free throws to push the Bear lead to 46-43 with 27 seconds left. Pierson drew a foul on their next possession and pulled within two after hitting the first free throw. The second fell short, but the Whalers again came up with the rebound. A game-tying shot hit the back of the rim, then a 3-pointer to take the lead rolled tantalizingly off the iron before the ball ricocheted out of bounds with 13.7 left.
Giles received the ball and drove baseline, but ran into a defensive wall courtesy of Felix and Caroline Maglione. She was forced to throw up an off-balance heave from the hip that missed to the right where Lee-Maeba secured it. She passed it to Felix who drew a foul with 8.0 seconds remaining. Felix connected on her second of two free throws to put the Bears back up three, 47-44. Pierson came down and missed the game-tying 3-pointer which bounced out of bounds to the Bears with 1.4 seconds left. It was the Whalers’ seventh straight missed field goal to end the game. The Bears were able to inbound it without incident to seal the upset victory.
All season long the Bears had dealt with injuries as key members of the team floated in and out of the lineup. Sitting next to Graves in street clothes were captain Sammy Petersen and Wura Obasanjo, two players who would have seen significant time in tonight’s match-up but were sidelined with injuries. Yet the Bears clawed their way through a tough league schedule and into the playoffs where they still found more in the tank. It was a remarkable effort from a very special group of young women.
Felix finished with 24 points and 5 rebounds. The mental toughness she found to play two and a half quarters with four fouls was monumental. Nwachukwu scored 11 points and pulled down 7 boards and every single point and rebound she contributed came at crucial moments. She never stopped battling and the Bears rode her motor back from numerous deficits. Scanlon scored 6 and grabbed 6 rebounds and already has an early contender for the most memorable shot of her career, despite being only a seventh-grader. When Felix picked up her fourth foul, Scanlon was also asked to defend Giles for large portions of the second half and did a masterful job. Lee-Maeba added 5 points and was a monster on the boards with 11 rebounds. She kept numerous possessions alive and played outstanding defense in the middle, never allowing Pierson to comfortably get to the rim. Maglione and Liz Robbins, despite not scoring a point, provided vital contributions by playing tenacious defense and battling on the boards.
With the win the Bears move on to their first County Championship since 2013 where they will face #1 Mercy. The game is scheduled for Monday at 4:00pm at Suffolk Community College–Selden.
- This is not the first time the Bears have broken Pierson hearts on Valentine’s Day. In 2013 the boys topped the Whalers 57-27 in the County Championship.
- The girls are now 4-0 all-time vs. Pierson in postseason games including the 2010 semifinals (51-28), 2011 County Championship (43-29) & 2013 semifinals (40-22).