Academy Charter, the new kids on the block, ran up against the legends of New York State Class D basketball on Friday night at Center Moriches High School.
The upstart Panthers from the private school in Hempstead, newcomers to varsity basketball playing their first-ever playoff game, gave the nine-time state champion Killer Bees something they’d never had before: a Long Island Championship.
The big three of J.P. Harding, Elijah White and Naéjon Ward combined to score 58 points for the Killer Bees in a 63-61 victory that pushed Bridgehampton to the next round of the state playoffs.
A Southeast Regional Class D Semifinal will be played on Monday at 6 p.m. at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh, where Bridgehampton will face the champion from Section IX. The winner of that game will play a regional final on either March 8 or 10, depending on the outcomes of other games this week, with a chance to play in the state final four in Binghamton over the weekend of March 15 through 17 on the line.
Regardless of their next opponent, talk among the Killer Bees on Friday had much more to do with how the team was progressing internally.
“We came such a long way,” said Ward, who led all scorers with 24 points. “We had a lot of things going on during the season that people don’t even know about. We came together as a family, as brothers. My guys are working hard and I always have trust in them.”
The Bees came out flat against an opponent they had never seen before and trailed by 10 points early. White closed out the first quarter with a three from the corner and it was the start of a hot streak for the junior guard, who scored nine of the Bees’ next 11 points to pull his team with striking distance. Ward hit a three with just under four minutes remaining in the first half to tie the game at 26 and Bridgehampton closed out the second quarter on a 26-14 run.
“Offense wins games, defense wins championships,” Bridgehampton coach Ron White said afterward. “The postseason is all about defense, being able to make it very difficult for the opponent to do what they want to do.”
Led by eighth-grader Jarrett Dingle and big man Justin Faulkner, the Panthers remained competitive all night, as they did all season despite a record of 2-8 against mostly Class B schools in Nassau County. Faulkner finished with a team-high 22 points and scored six in the third quarter, while Dingle had eight in the period, including a three at the buzzer to tie the game at 46.
“I need these boys to believe,” Academy Charter head coach Gordon James said later. “A lot of them have not played much outside of Hempstead. This was our first year with a varsity program and a lot of them didn’t know what to expect. I want them to realize ‘I belong here.’ And once you learn something, you didn’t lose.”
The Panthers took back the lead early in the fourth quarter until Harding, who finished with 16 points, scored four straight to tie the game with six minutes left. Ward followed with a steal and coast-to-coast finish, and Jacqhr Carr scored three quick points to put Bridgehampton up six.
But still the Panthers clawed back and Faulkner and Dingle combined on a quick 6-0 run to tie the game again, this time at 56 with 2:41 left in the game. A blow-by layup by Ward and a pair of free throws each from White and Jonny DeGroot sealed the deal in the end for the Killer Bees.
“Defense, defense, defense,” coach White repeated what he had been preaching all night in the team huddle. “Just being gritty, and get back to the old Killer Bee defense. I commend these guys for really going hard and not quitting.
“It only gets harder,” he added about the road ahead — a road White is familiar with since he won state championships as player at Bridgehampton in the 1990s. “It’s a win-or-go-home type scenario for everybody. When you go upstate, the talent is not completely there, but they rock their sets, they’re disciplined in what they do, they set the back screens, they work the shot clock, and that’s what it’s going to take to be a champion.”
That idea was not lost on his 16-year old son, Elijah.
“We came in and didn’t know what to expect. We just had to come out here and play our hardest and that’s what we did,” he said as the crowd emptied out of the Center Moriches gym. “But every playoff game is different. There’s always butterflies and it was such a relief to come out of this game with a win.”
And with just two days to recover before the next game, it won’t be long before those butterflies flare up again.