Youth, inexperience and a two-week layoff from competitive play combined in a shaky start for the Bridgehampton boys basketball team in a New York State Class D Southeast Regional Semifinal at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood on Monday.
But those who follow the nine-time state champion Killer Bees know that anything is possible, and that trips upstate are almost a birthright. A big second half from junior J.P. Harding helped lead the Bees out of an early 11-point hole on Monday to knock off Livingston Manor, 50-48, to advance in the state tournament.
The victory over the Wildcats from Section IX means the Bees will face either Martin Luther King, the champion from Section I, or Newfield, the winner of Section IV, in a regional final at Center Moriches High School on Friday night, with tip-off scheduled for 7 p.m.
Martin Luther King (7-13) and Newfield (19-2) were set to square off on Tuesday at Johnson City High School, which is located just outside Binghamton. The winner of Friday’s game in Center Moriches will return to Binghamton and the Floyd L. Maines Arena next weekend, March 16 and 17, for the state championships.
“It’s good to be right here in our backyard,” Bridgehampton’s first-year head coach, Ron White, said following Monday’s victory. “We’re familiar with Center Moriches and one more game, we’re upstate. I think some people counted us out in the beginning of the season, and now we’re here, one of the last teams playing on the island.”
Bridgehampton’s season was in jeopardy early on Monday as a series of turnovers and missed opportunities combined with solid shooting by the Wildcats put the Bees in a 17-6 first-quarter hole. That was until a 15-2 Bridgehampton run, in which five different Killer Bees scored baskets, swung the tide and put Bridgehampton right back in the game.
“We just fought all game,” said Bridgehampton sophomore Elijah White, who tied Harding with a team-high 14 points. “We started off really bad on defense. We were letting them get a lot of second chance points, easy layups, letting them get around the corner. But I think that was due to butterflies and not knowing who we were playing. Once we got into the second quarter and third quarter, we started to lock up. We crashed boards hard, fought for every loose ball and came out doing the best we could.”
The game was tied 26-26 at halftime and 37-37 following the third quarter, in which Harding came alive to score eight of his 14 points. William Walker, who is only a freshman, hit a basket to put Bridgehampton up 43-41, but Livingston Manor quickly responded with a 4-0 burst to re-take the lead.
White hit a pair of free throws to tie the game and a putback by Jonathan DeGroot gave the Bees a two-point advantage, 47-45. Sophomore point guard Nae’Jon Ward fouled out after scoring nine points with 38.5 seconds left. With Livingston Manor looking to tie the game and send it into overtime, Harding came up with a critical steal and finish that put Bridgehampton up by four with just 16 seconds left. A late three from the Wildcats and a foul shot by White with less than a second remaining provide the game’s final margin.
“We have a young team, and a lot of times with a young team they teeter a little bit,” said White, who won three state titles as a player at Bridgehampton in the late 1990s alongside his assistant coach, Maurice Manning. “But we were able to get it together and sneak this win out.”
Flash forward 20 years since the great Bees teams of the ’90s, and it could be the younger White’s turn to make a run upstate with his teammates.
“We played our best when we were in the middle of the season playing games every other day. It was a grind, but we played our best then,” Elijah White said, happy to get back into a competitive rhythm. “This win under our belt is going to give us a lot of confidence going into the next game.”