By Gavin Menu
Following what could only be described as a heartbreaking loss, Bridgehampton head coach Carl Johnson retained his usual composure and looked toward the future of Killer Bees basketball and his continued quest of turning children into talented players and gracious young men.
The Killer Bees lost a New York State Class D Regional Semifinal, 61-60, to the S.S. Seward Spartans out of Florida, New York, at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh on Monday night. The loss brought an end to the season and Johnson’s 27-year career as head coach at Bridgehampton, where he won three state titles as a player and four more as a coach.
Seward advances in the state playoffs and will play the winner from Section I and Section IV this weekend with a berth in the state final four on the line.
Monday’s game ended as Bridgehampton failed to convert on three straight possessions during the final 30 seconds of the game. But even after such a bitter defeat, Johnson spoke with bright eyes about the future of the program and his role working with up-and-coming young players at the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center.
“People think I’m gone, but I’ll be in the back room doing something,” Johnson said following the game on Monday. “I plan to work with the grassroots program with the younger kids, second grade and up. And if I can build a foundation with those kids, hopefully it will make it easier for the coach who is taking over after me.
“I’m going to keep Bridgehampton tradition going,” he added, “but I’ll be behind the scenes with it.”
The Killer Bees, who entered the playoffs on a quest to win the program’s 10th state boys basketball title, which would have tied Mt. Vernon’s record for the most state titles in New York history, jumped out to a 10-1 lead on Monday, only to allow Seward back in the game early in the second quarter. Led by sophomore guard John Guerra, who led all scorers with 26 points, the Spartans tied the game at 34 at halftime, and led by eight points going into the fourth quarter.
Senior Elijah Jackson, who led Bridgehampton with 21 points in his final game as a Killer Bee, scored four quick points to start the fourth quarter. J.P. Harding, who was back in the lineup after missing two games with a fractured wrist, hit two free throws to tie the game at 56 and Elijah Harding gave Bridgehampton the lead with 2:30 remaining.
Seward’s Matt Stam then hit what turned out to be the game-winning three with 54 seconds remaining to give the Spartans a 61-58 lead. Nae’Jon Ward, Bridgehampton’s tiny, but lighting-quick, freshman point guard, hit two pressure-packed free throws to pull his team within one one, but from there the Killer Bees were unable to get another good look at the basket. Ward nearly turned the ball over on the game’s final play, before finding Jackson near the three-point line as the clock expired.
“I normally look for the ball on big plays, but Nae’Jon played a great game the whole night,” Jackson said afterward. “It just hurts to see us go out that way. It’s a team effort, and now the younger guys have to get back in the gym tomorrow and go for it.”
Johnson spoke afterward about pressure situations, specifically the last three plays of the game, which never materialized into a good look at the basket for his team.
“They get so caught up in the moment and they go blank,” Johnson said. “Nae’Jon is a freshman. Hopefully, this is a step that will help make him a better player. That’s part of the game, but if you don’t execute, you don’t win. Those three possessions down the end we didn’t get a bucket. That’s the difference in the game right there.”
Jackson and Elijah Harding will graduate this spring, along with Nykell Dean, who scored 14 of his 17 points in the first half on Monday. Bench players Maurice Mungin, Max Cheng, Ray Maldonado and Kevin Felicano will also graduate this June.
“It’s not just a one-day thing, it’s every day of your life,” Jackson said about his experience as a Killer Bee and what the future holds for J.P. Harding, Ward and his fellow freshman, Elijah White. “They have to come back hungry next year and put the time and the work in.”
Johnson agreed that in the end it comes down to hard work and the pride that comes from being a Killer Bee.
“It was just getting to business each day, working hard every day,” Johnson said about his final season. “When I came back I told the kids I would give them 100 percent, so I expected the same thing in return. Now they’ve been through the playoffs. They know what it tastes like, they know what it feels like, and hopefully they can learn from this. I think they’re going to be solid.
“I was telling these kids,” Johnson said to close out his final postgame interview as a high school head coach, “I don’t care where you come from, if you’re a champion, you’re a champion.”