Battle of the unbeatens: Northport vs. Whitman

Battle of the unbeatens: Northport vs. Whitman

When perennial powers Northport and Whitman squared off on Monday evening, not only was it a battle of unbeaten girls basketball teams, but it was also the night of the annual cancer awareness event in Northport called Score for a Cure.

Girls on both teams wore pink warm-up gear and had the names of people in their lives who have been touched by cancer hand-written on their shirts.

Legendary Northport Coach Rich Castellano took the microphone to thank the girls, coaches and fans for their support and fundraising efforts, as he has been stricken — and beaten — the dreaded disease twice in his lifetime. The all-time winningest girls basketball coach in Long Island history is one of the pioneers of the Score for a Cure program.

However, when the brief ceremony was over and the game had begun, there wasn’t a heck of a lot of scoring of the basketball. Neither team registered a point until Whitman Lady Cat Iris Hoffman hit a three pointer for the visitors with almost five minutes gone in the first quarter. Both teams combined to miss their first 11 field goal attempts.

“I can’t remember such a low scoring first quarter,” said the affable Castellano. “I thought we might make history and have a zero-zero game.”

Castellano’s hyperbole aside, he wasn’t far from the truth as the mighty Lady Tigers, who average 65 points a game, had a lonely field goal and a couple of free throws in the first quarter and trailed 8-4 after one.

The second quarter was vastly different.

Hard-nosed point guard Payson Hedges started to find cracks in the Wildcat defense, finding forward Kennedy Radziul inside for a layup and sophomore swingman Claire Fitzpatrick on the wing for a three pointer to start the period. Hedges stole the ball from Hoffman and scored on a driving layup to cap a 10-0 run with three minutes left in the half. Fitzpatrick would make another three-pointer — as would junior guard Kaylee Walsh — and Northport would lead 24-12 at the break.

“We haven’t really been defended better than we were defended tonight,“ Castellano said. “But we started to run some screens down low and Payson was very good at getting the ball to the right person.”

In the first half, starting shooting guard Brooke Kershow was uncustomarily not one of those people, having missed on all four of her field goal attempts. 

But during one important stretch in the third quarter, she righted herself and the Lady Tigers in a big way. After the Wildcats trimmed the Tiger lead to just three in the first 5 minutes of the second half, Kershow hit a long bomb from the wing, a driving, two-handed layup and a mid-range jumper for seven straight points in barely over a minute of basketball. It jolted the momentum back to the Blue and Gold and gave them a nine-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.

“I had a slow start, but it was sure nice to come out in the second half and help the team,” said Kershow.

Castellano, who has been coaching Northport for over 40 years, is a master of pushing the right buttons when he senses that a player would benefit from sitting and watching.

“I saw something was off with her shooting, so I gave her a breather,” Castellano said. “But Brooke is a great shooter and that little run of hers really turned the game for us at the end of the third.”

But Whitman wasn’t done. They whittled the lead down to three when sophomore forward Brianna Verga scored on a Euro-step layup with three minutes left in the contest to cap a 7-0 spree. The Lady Cats were one possession away from potentially tying the game.

But sharpshooter Walsh bagged a bomb from the left corner to give Northport a 40-34 lead with two minutes to go. Whitman called timeout and Walsh’s joyous teammates smothered her with hugs and high-fives.

“We are all so close as a team and never selfish with the ball,” said Walsh, who comes off the bench for Northport on most nights. “It’s great playing with the starters and knowing that they trust me with the ball. I felt pretty confident taking that shot and it felt great to see it go in, in such a big moment of the game.”

“If Kaylee has an open shot, I’ve told her a million times to take it,” Castellano said. “She is starting to not let the moments be too big for her and after making that one, I think it will help her confidence even more.”

Walsh’s three-bagger would be the dagger in what was a 43-36 final that saw no Lady Tiger score in double figures. Fitzpatrick had 9, as did Hedges who also had 7 assists. Radziul scored 8, Kershow 7 and Walsh’s two three-pointers were good for six. Hoffman led all scorers with 12 and Verga added 10.

What they lacked in offense, Northport made up for with defense and clutch shooting. They are now 9-0 in league play and Whitman drops to 7-1.

“Before every game, I write something on the whiteboard for the girls to think about,” Castellano said. “Today I wrote that I wanted them to find a way to grow. We didn’t play our typical game and we didn’t shoot particularly well, especially in that first half, but we were resourceful, played good pressure defense and hit big shots when we needed to steal back the momentum. So I think they read those words and we grew a little bit as a team tonight.”