What began as a lovefest for the Pierson Whalers — a Valentine’s Day doubleheader to celebrate the boys and girls basketball teams and their quest to advance in the Suffolk County Class C playoffs — ended in heartbreak Wednesday night as fans clad in scarlet and black filtered out of the high school gym in a collective state of shock.
In the early game the Lady Whalers let an eight-point fourth-quarter lead slip away in an outbracket playoff game against visiting Stony Brook, which slipped away with a 47-44 victory that ended Pierson’s season at least one game short of its planned destination, the Suffolk County Class C Championship game, which now will be contested between the Bears and top-ranked Mercy on Monday at Suffolk County Community College in Selden.
The disappointment from the early game spilled over into the nightcap, when the boys team played once again without senior Will Martin, the team’s leading scorer who suffered a season-ending knee injury late last month. The loss of Martin’s scoring prowess was evident from the opening tip, as the Whalers scored just one point in a hard-to-watch second quarter, and eight in the third, on their way to a 43-32 loss to Port Jefferson.
Girls Will Return Entire Starting Lineup
The silver lining for the girls program is that head coach Kevin Barron can expect to see a large part of this year’s team return next season. Only three seniors — Shannon Sloane, Cassie Arbia and Lizzie Lesser — will graduate this spring.
The team received a boost this season when sophomore guard Chastin Giles left Mercy to attend Pierson, where she led the team in scoring and handled the bulk of the ball handling duties. Giles had 21 points on Wednesday, but she struggled to get off a good shot during the final two minutes. Ironically, it was Sag Harbor native Niamh Scanlon, playing varsity as a seventh grader, who made the go-ahead basket for Stony Brook off an offensive rebound with 41 seconds remaining.
“I talked to the girls about consistency,” Barron said following a postgame conversation with his players. “We just had no chemistry tonight on offense. They played well enough to beat us, which is a difficult thing to do when you’re away in a playoff game.”
Pierson beat Stony Brook by 24 a week before Wednesday’s playoff game and entered the postseason having played in the last four county championship games, winning three in row prior to last season’s loss to Port Jefferson. But the Bears on Wednesday showed resiliency all night. They lost forward Danielle Graves to an ankle injury early in the game and star point guard Beth Felix, who finished with a game-high 24 points, played the entire second half with four fouls.
Stony Brook’s defense was stingy as well as the Bears closed the game on a 10-1 run over the final minute and 45 seconds.
“We were having a problem passing and cutting, which is a big problem because a lot of us were getting face guarded,” said junior Katie Kneeland, who fouled out of the game with 2:43 remaining. “And if you’re face guarded you can’t really get the ball so you have to use those screens to get around the defense and go for the layup.”
“They were playing really far up,” Giles added about Stony Brook. “I tried to drive more, but I couldn’t finish every layup. They were playing really far up, so it was hard to get the ball out to everybody.”
After Giles pushed Pierson’s lead back to six with 1:45 left in the game, Felix connected on a long-range three-pointer and a pair of free throws to quickly cut the margin to a single point. Scanlon’s putback put the Bears up 44-43, and moments later Felix rebounded a missed three by Giles, was fouled, and hit both her free throws to put Stony Brook up by three. Celia Barranco hit a foul shot with 13.7 seconds on the clock, but it was the last offense Pierson was able to muster during the frenzied closing moments.
“It just wasn’t our night,” Barron said afterward. “I told the girls ‘You have to learn from this loss, you have to let it sink in for a while because this one should hurt.’”
Giles, Kneeland and their fellow starters from Wednesday, Paige Schaefer, Sophia Bitis and Aziza El, who left the game early with a knee injury, are all expected to return next season, along with other key players including Barranco, Carly Browngardt and Phoebe Arkinson. Despite the gloomy postgame atmosphere on Wednesday, the future appeared bright.
“If everyone on this team puts in work during the offseason and tries their best to get stronger and faster and plays as much basketball as they can, we’re going to succeed next year and hopefully get the Class C Championship,” Giles said.
“I’m really excited to come back next year,” Kneeland added. “This is a new team for a lot of us. A lot of us are playing together for the first time, but when we were at our best, it was incredible the kind of passing and movement we had. We just have to get there, and I think that’s chemistry we have to work on.”
Boys Fail to Muster Enough Offense Without Martin
The Pierson boys basketball team averaged between 50 and 60 points per game this season, and senior Will Martin was good for 50 percent of the scoring load. So when he went down with a knee injury against Greenport last month, and had season-ending surgery earlier this week, the Whalers knew the Suffolk County Class C playoffs would be an uphill battle.
The loss of Martin meant the Whalers would have to depend largely on perimeter shooting and the three-point prowess of players like Henry and Tom Brooks, who were off the mark early against Port Jefferson, which Pierson coach Hank Katz credited later with playing strong defense and controlled offense in Wednesday’s 43-32 victory. It was Pierson’s worst scoring output of the year.
“Our shots just didn’t drop. They took us out of our rhythm, and I give Port Jefferson all the credit,” Katz said. “They handled our pressure very well. They played smart and they played with composure.”
Henry Brooks, a sophomore who has carried the bulk of the scoring load since Martin went out, scored five straight first-quarter points to put Pierson up early. But as the shots began to fall short, the advantage slowly, and painfully, went the way of the Royals, who led by nine at halftime after Pierson scored just a single point on a free throw by Tom Brooks in the second quarter.
Pierson senior E.J. Burke hit two foul shots early in the third quarter and broke a 12-minute stretch without a field goal as the Whalers stayed in the game with four minutes left in the third quarter, trailing 24-17. Burke was a bright spot for the Whalers all night and earned the praise of his coach afterward.
“He was so much the heart and soul of what we are about,” Katz said about Burke, who will graduate along with Martin, Tom Brooks and Sam Warne. “He played so hard, all the time, and as a coach that’s all you can ever ask. His energy and desire were something special.”
Pierson was never able to go on a hot streak following Burke’s scoring burst in the third quarter, and the team’s trademark pressure defense was not as effective as is has been in the past. Trailing by 10 late in the game, Katz put in his reserves and the season came to a quiet close.
“We’ve got a bright future ahead, and these seniors really laid the foundation,” Katz said. “It’s tough to see them go because they’re such great kids, they’re great leaders and they made my job fun. We play hard, we play to win, but at the end of the day it’s a game and they made it fun.”