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Sam Ayotte

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The Port Jefferson girls’ basketball team following its Class C state semifinal win over South Seneca. Photo by Danielle Turner

Despite coming up just short of their ultimate goal, the 2016-17 Port Jefferson girls’ basketball season won’t soon be forgotten.

It wasn’t securing the final win that mattered. As the dust settled after Watkins Glen scored a buzzer-beating layup to edge out the Royals, 65-63, in the Class C state finals, the legacy the five senior starters will leave behind and their incredible run, will remain on everyone’s mind.

Every win since the Royals’ 46-43 nail-biter over Pierson-Bridgehampton has been historic. With that victory, Port Jefferson brought home the first Suffolk County championship crown in 90 years. The team then outscored East Rockaway, 67-49, for the Long Island title in school history. The Royals have continued to improve on a 6-9 2013-14 record over the last three seasons, but made a giant leap this year. Port Jefferson won a regional title in the school’s first appearance in the state tournament March 9 and followed it up with a state semifinal victory March 18, to reach the finals.

The Royals were coming off a high heading into the state finals matchup March 19 against Watkins Glen. Port Jefferson had crushed South Seneca 71-53, which senior standout Courtney Lewis said was a big boost of confidence for the team.

“We had never played a team outside of Suffolk before this season, and I think winning by such a large margin on Saturday made us realize we could win,” she said. “We belonged upstate.”

After scoring 31 points in the semifinal game, Lewis tallied 11 of the team’s 15 first-quarter points to help the Royals to a 15-10 lead in the finals. By halftime, the advantage diminished just slightly, to 29-24, with the 2,000-point scorer adding five more points.

“I felt great going into the game,” she said. “I really felt like I could attack their man defense and our offensive plays worked well.”

Freshman Sam Ayotte filled in for Lewis in the third when she was in foul trouble, and she and senior Corinne Scannell came up big in Lewis’ absence. Ayotte capped off a 20-4 run with a 3-pointer from the right corner, extending Port Jefferson’s lead to 53-37 entering the fourth. She scored 12 points in the game, and Scannell added 11.

“Corinne Scannell was making her layups and foul shots, and freshman Sam Ayotte stepped up her game and was driving to the basket,” senior Jackie Brown said. “It gave us the energy we needed.”

But that energy came to a sudden halt, as Watkins Glen’s 28-10 fourth quarter was the difference.

“Our defense was most intense in the third quarter, and our foul situation really hurt us in the fourth,” Lewis said.

She returned to action 50 seconds into the fourth quarter with her team leading 56-42. By the 1:24 mark, Watkins Glen had pulled within two. Watkins Glen added a free throw, but senior Jillian Colucci hit one of two free-throw attempts with 33.1 seconds left to push the lead back to two points, 63-61. With 13.7 seconds on the clock, the game was tied 63-63. Port Jefferson had the ball but couldn’t take the lead. Watkins Glen gained control and Hannah Morse hit a layup at the buzzer, ending the Royals’ 20-5 season just short of a state championship.

“I feel great knowing that even though we didn’t win, we still will go down in history at our high school,” said Lewis, who knocked down a game-high 23 points. “Basketball has been such a big part of my life for as long as I can remember, and just playing with these girls and getting this far in the playoffs is the best way I could have imagined ending my high school career.”

Lewis, who first started on the team as a seventh-grader, was part of three losing season before the Royals started experiencing success.

“Playing on the team since seventh grade has been such a positive influence in my life, and a shaping one, too,” she said. “Basketball means so much to me and playing for Port Jeff was nothing short of a perfect experience, especially my senior season.”

Brown reflected on her time with her teammates.

The Royals game plan before the start of the fourth quarter in the state finals matchup against Watkins Glen. Photo by Danielle Turner

Senior Gillian Kenah is a threat on the boards, Brown said, always below the basket to “clean up the trash,” grab rebounds and score putbacks. Brown said Scannell’s bubbly spirit and positive attitude puts a smile on everyone on the team. The All-Tournament basketball selectee and recipient of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s Sportsmanship Award has a strong shot from all over the court.

Colucci, an All-Long Island and All-State soccer player who was named Suffolk County Player of the Year is quick on her feet, with a determination to win that, according to Brown, gets the girls fired up.

“She’s a game changer,” Brown said.

Lewis, as one of the only starters who focuses solely on basketball, has a great sense of the game.

“She is truly an amazing basketball player,” Brown said. “From CYO to senior year, she’s a talent. I could always count on her to get things done.”

The many multisport athletes on the team  only enhanced its winning attitude, with Colucci and Scannell bringing the soccer team’s state-championship mentality to the court the last two seasons. Brown, a field hockey standout, further added to the team’s athleticism.

The Royals have not only made an impression on the district, but also left newcomers like athletic director Danielle Turner in awe.

“I have been involved with countless teams in my career as a player, coach and observer; I can’t remember a team that I am more proud of,” she said. “Right before our eyes, these girls have changed basketball in Port Jefferson. Not only from an athletic standpoint, but from a cultural perspective. Their unwavering commitment to each other, their mental toughness and their maturity were evident throughout the season, and especially throughout their playoff run. It’s something that will be talked about for years to come.”

Brown hopes making history will inspire future teams to come.

“I’ve never been part of a championship team, so I’m honored to be a part of it with this group of girls,” she said. “This has been an incredible experience and I’m so proud of what this team has done over the past five months. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m also excited for the younger girls. It gives them motivation to go get it next year.”

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Senior scores 30 points against Stony Brook

Courtney Lewis drives to the basket. Photo by Desirée Keegan

As Courtney Lewis goes, so goes the Port Jefferson girls’ basketball team.

The senior led the Royals to a 71-22 win over Stony Brook Jan. 14, scoring a game-high 30 points.

“She’s unbelievable,” Port Jefferson head coach Ed Duddy said. “She’s really matured and she has a lot of talent. That makes the other girls better and opens them up for more shots, too.”

Lewis is in her sixth season on the varsity squad, and has served as a model of success for younger Royals, like freshman Sam Ayotte.

“I look up to her,” Ayotte said of the senior. “She always makes these great moves, she teaches me everything I need to know about the game and she’s a role model in the sport.”

Jackie Brown carries the ball across the court. Photo by Desirée Keegan

Lewis scored 10 points in the first quarter, and added six more by halftime. Ayotte scored eight points in the first half, on two three-pointers and a field goal.

“I’ve been working on making threes, and they all fell in today,” Ayotte said.

Duddy was happy to see the freshman, along with his bench players, scoring in the game.

“Sam hadn’t done that all year, but she was on fire today,” he said. “We’ve been working on her shooting and it opened up for her today. All she had to do was hit that first one and get her confidence going and she couldn’t stop shooting. It’s always a good team win when everyone gets involved in the game and everyone scores.”

At halftime, Port Jefferson led 33-15, but Duddy told his Royals he thought they had it in them to run the opposing team off the court, and that’s what they did.

“We had more energy and we focused more on passing the ball, not taking the first shot and looking for the open shots,” Lewis said. “I think in the second half we definitely upped the intensity and got more rebounds and assists.”

Lewis scored 11 points in the third quarter on two three-pointers, a put-back and a three-point play, and senior Corinne Scannell, chipped in 10 points of her total 12 in the third to help Port Jeff pull away.

Scannell said her team improved on executing its plays in the second half, and the team’s press led to multiple turnovers, which the Royals converted for easy points.

Sam Ayotte fights to maintain possession of the ball. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“We were focused on shooting on our first opportunity, but in the second half we started to take a breath and unweave the defense instead of shooting from the outside right away,” she said. “Everyone is always super supportive of each other, and Gillian Kenah, she was looking for me cutting through. But it’s not always the person who assists that helps out, it’s the person setting the pick, or the girls on the other side, the whole team makes it happen.”

Lewis scored her 1,500th point of her career this season, and is hoping to reach the 2,000 mark. Currently, she’s at 1,735.

“Courtney is amazing,” Scannell said. “I’ve been playing with her a long time — since we were in fourth grade CYO — and when she sees the lane to the basket she knows how to take advantage of those opportunities and create opportunities to score.”

Senior Jackie Brown added 10 points, senior Gillian Kenah finished with four and sophomores Jocelyn Lebron and Sarah Hull rounded out the scoring with two points each.

“We have five seniors that have been playing together since seventh grade, so it’s cool seeing how we’ve developed and looking up to the girls before us,” Scannell said. “We’re enjoying our last year.”

But if the team wants to make a statement, defense is going to have to continue to be key for the Royals.

“It’s our time I told them,” Duddy said. “They’re a tight group, they’re good friends on and off the court and hopefully it happens this year. Right now I like where we’re at and hopefully we finish strong, but when we get into the playoffs and we play Pierson and Southold, possibly, it’s going to come down to defense. We’ve always been a good shooting team, but we have to emphasize defense if we’re going to win a ‘C’ championship.”

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