Beating a team three times in one season is supposed to be a challenge, according to the old adage, and it proved true on Friday night at East Hampton High School, where the undefeated League VIII-champion Pierson boys basketball team lost to Southold, 62-60, in the Suffolk County Class C Championship game.
The heartbreaking defeat, sealed on a three-pointer by Southold senior Nick Grathwohl with 7.3 seconds to play, brought the careers of five Pierson seniors to an end, including that of Henry Brooks, a thousand-point scorer whose desperation shot at the buzzer missed the mark to send the Whalers faithful home in shock.
The Settlers, meanwhile, advanced and will face Smithtown Christian in the Suffolk C/D title game next Wednesday, February 19. Regardless of how things play out in the overall Suffolk tournament, Southold will play for a Long Island Championship against East Rockaway on March 10 at Centereach High School with a chance to advance in the state tournament.
“I believe in my guys,” Pierson’s first-year coach, Will Fujita, who played high school basketball at Southold, said afterward. Bottom line, he added, “they played better than we did.”
Going into Friday’s final, the Whalers (14-7) hadn’t lost since December 30 — a stretch of 11 games that included a 76-48 win at Southold on January 28, the second victory over the Settlers during the regular season. But, as Fujita pointed out, foul trouble hit Pierson hard on Friday as sophomore Wilson Bennett, the team’s second leading scorer behind Brooks, picked up a pair of first-half fouls while defensive specialists Peter Schaefer and Habtamu Coulter had three apiece.
The Whalers led by 12 with about three minutes to play, but Bennett and senior Nick Egbert fouled out prior to Southold going on a 17-3 run to close out the game. Grathwohl, the senior guard who was at the middle of everything on Friday, finished with a game-high 30 points.
Fujita said he had faith in his reserves to go into the game and maintain a lead, but he gave credit to Southold for continuing to come back.
“I trust all of my guys top to bottom. Everybody did their job throughout the season,” he said. “We fell short of what our goal was, but Southold played a good game.
“We’ll use it as a learning experience moving forward,” he added.
Brooks missed five free throws in the fourth quarter, but finished with a team-high 24 points to close out his decorated career. Bennett, who will return to lead next year’s team, finished with 20 points, including 14 in the third quarter as the Whalers erased a four-point halftime deficit to take what seemed like a commanding lead.
Joining Brooks, Egbert and Schaefer at graduation in June will be forward Harry Cowen and reserve Jessup Kunzeman. Fujita said they’ll all be missed.
“We’ll miss them dearly,” he said. “Not only are they great basketball players, they’re even better people. They’re leadership both on and off the court is something that we’ll miss and will have to replace in the offseason. All of those guys have been pivotal to the success of the program.”