By Gavin Menu; photography by Michael Heller
After nearly three decades as both a player and coach at Bridgehampton High School — a span that included seven New York State Class D championships — head coach Carl Johnson paced the sidelines of the Beehive for the last time on Saturday afternoon.
With family, friends and former teammates joining dozens of former Killer Bee players in the crowd that packed the school’s tiny gym, Johnson’s team sent him off in style with a 96-79 victory over longtime rival Greenport.
The Porters (12-7) came into the game having already won the League VIII title with a win over Pierson on February 8 combined with the Bees’ 47-42 loss at Stony Brook on the same day. But those results did little to strip away the excitement from Saturday’s game, which was delayed from Friday night because of the snowstorm.
Saturday was also senior day at Bridgehampton, at which seven seniors were honored in a pre-game ceremony including Elijah Jackson, Nykell Dean, Elijah Harding, Kevin Feliciano, Max Cheng, Maurice Mungin and Raymond Maldonado. Nia Dawson, who plays for Pierson’s girls basketball team, was also honored.
Greenport brought a sizeable crowd and a perfect league record to the game, but the Porters could not match the wave of emotion and all-around strong play by the Killer Bees (13-5) following a heartfelt ceremony to honor Johnson before tip-off.
“Bridgehampton basketball is everything to me,” Johnson said shortly before game time. “It’s that sense of community, that sense of family. It helped nurture me to become the coach and the person I am today. It’s a little bittersweet.”
RELATED: Watch video of Johnson’s last game
Johnson started five seniors on Saturday, leaving regulars Nae’jon Ward and Elijah White, both freshmen, on the bench. Greenport jumped out to a 10-point lead, but White and Ward gave the team a spark when they entered the game. The Bees pulled to within six after the first quarter, and led by the same margin going into halftime. They pushed the lead to eight after three quarters, and then clobbered the Porters with an 18-9 fourth quarter run to finish the game.
J.P. Harding led five players in double figures with 25 points, but left the game after falling hard to the floor with just under 4 minutes remaining. Harding was taken by ambulance to Southampton Hospital and received stitches in his chin.
“The kid has a high tolerance for pain,” Johnson said afterward, adding that Harding appeared to be fine otherwise. “He has 11 days to recover.”
Elijah Harding, in his final game at the Beehive, finished with 23 points while Jackson had 20. Ward scored 12 points and Dean had 10.
Greenport’s dynamic freshman guard, Ahkee Anderson, finished with a game-high 30 points to lead the Porters, who will enter the postseason as the top seed for the Class C playoffs.
Bridgehampton is expected to automatically earn the Suffolk Class D title, since Shelter Island, the only other school of that size in the county, finished the season without a win. The Suffolk C-D title game is tentatively scheduled to be played Tuesday, February 21, at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood at 5 p.m., with the winner advancing to face the Class B champion the following Friday at Suffolk Community in Selden.
The Class D playoffs, where Johnson and the Killer Bees hope to make another run at a state title, are tentatively scheduled to begin for Bridgehampton with a Southeast Regional semifinal game against the winner from Section IX on March 6 at Mount St. Mary’s in Newburgh. The regional final will be March 10, with the winner heading to Glens Falls for the state semifinals and finals over the weekend of March 17 to 19.
“I see glimpses of brilliance with this team,” Johnson said on Saturday. “With this team, I had a feeling that if we could pull together we were going to have a pretty good season, and they have. They believe in each other and I think we have a great shot at winning at states, no doubt in my mind.”
And with that, Johnson walked into the Beehive for his final game at Bridgehampton.
“I never thought I was going to get into coaching,” Johnson confessed moments before tip-off, giving credit to his high school coach, Roger Golden, for giving him the confidence to take the job in the first place. “He asked me if I wanted to coach and I said ‘I’ll put five, 10 years in,’ and here it is, my 26th year. I don’t where time flies. This was the right place for me to come. It was meant to be. It was destiny.”
J.P. Harding drives to the basket while head coach Carl Johnson looks on. In the Beehive, coaches are allowed to stand in-bounds.