By Steven Zaitz
It was only the second day of February, but ‘March Madness’ is already running white hot for both the Commack Cougar and Northport Tiger boys basketball teams.
In one of the loudest, most intense, and competitive games this season, Commack held on for dear life to beat their crosstown rival Northport, 44-41, last Friday night. The game featured six lead changes and neither team ever led by more than six, as raucous fans from both schools went bonkers with every loose ball, lead change, hustle play, and made basket.
This contest also featured two of the best guards on Long Island — the 6’0” senior Nick Waga for the Cougars and the 5’11” senior JoJo Cipollino for the Tigers — and this head-to-head battle did not disappoint. The two squared off in their own personal showdown that climaxed with each coming up big in the dying moments of the game.
But who would have the final say?
As is the case with most thrillers, this 32-minute slugfest had plenty of plot twists, triumphs, blunders, unbridled joy, and bitter regret —all bathed in the backdrop of the ultra-competitive Suffolk League II playoff picture, with the Tigers sitting just behind the Cougars in the standings.
“It was one of the craziest atmospheres I’ve ever played in,” Waga said, who scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds. “It felt like a playoff game, and it was awesome to see both student sections packed because it made it feel like every possession mattered.”
Waga was a key cog in last year’s Cougar machine that made it to the Suffolk County finals at Stony Brook University, so he knows a thing or two about playing in a playoff atmosphere. He is a four-year letterman under head coach Peter Smith and has come of age in the Commack basketball program.
“Nick is a great leader,” Smith said. “He’s been on the team since his freshman year, and watching him develop as the player and leader that he has become has been a lot of fun.”
This night of high school basketball was a reminder of how much fun this game can be. The Commack faithful, many of whom were dressed up in full superhero and Ninja Turtle costumes, were at fever pitch even before the opening tap, screaming and waving home white towels as if they were connected to a hidden power source underneath the bleachers.
Although they had sans towels, Northport’s fan base was just as loud when things went in their team’s favor and Cipollino was a major source of this. Like Waga, he has developed into a star. Jojo is still lightning quick with his first step, despite adding inches and muscle to his frame this season from last, and he is even more fearless going to the basket; no matter how many taller defenders are waiting for him in the paint.
“It was one of the loudest games I’ve played in, and that was great, but we couldn’t get the job done in the end,” an exhausted Cipollino said.
While disappointed, Northport head coach Andrew D’Eloia, whose team has a record of 9-5, sees the bigger picture.
“We are very close to being in a position to win these types of games,” D’Eloia said. “It comes down to one or two plays, and to their credit, they made them down the stretch. They play the game the right way; they share the ball, they play defense, and we try to teach our kids the same thing at Northport, and that’s why the games are often so close between Commack and Northport.”
Despite the late fireworks, both teams suffered through a sleepy first quarter, shooting below 20% from the field. Northport led 5-4 after eight minutes.
Commack leveraged a 6-0 run to end the first half, and they took an 18-13 lead into the break. Cougar star quarterback Jeremy Weiss, who plays power forward for Smith, had an athletic rebound and put-back to spark the run with three minutes left. The Commack portion of the crowd was content to cheer his name for the remainder of the quarter.
Northport sliced the lead to one entering the fourth quarter. At the very end of the period, senior guard Liam Sevey collected the rebound of a last-second, half-court heave from teammate Owen Boyland and was able to barely beat the buzzer to pull the Tigers to within one at 27-26.
“That was a great example of game awareness, hustle, and playing to whistle by Liam,” D’Eloia said.
Enter another hustler into the mix, Commack senior swingman Evan Kay, who would figure prominently in the final quarter.
With four minutes left in the game and Commack up by three, Kay fought for a loose ball with Cipollino and Tiger forward Brendan Fenlon. All three would pile on top of each other, but the possession arrow pointed to Commack. Waga hit a three moments later to make it 39-33.
Cipollino countered with a triple from the elbow, and it was the Northport cheering section’s turn to scream their heads off. Kay, who was scoreless in the first three quarters, made his second bucket of the fourth, to give the Cougars a five-point lead with less than three minutes to go. Kay pumped his fist in the air as he ran back down on defense and the Cougar crowd had a new hero to holler for.
“Evan has been a great addition to our team because he brings a lot of energy off the bench,” Smith said. “He has a ‘no-lose’ type of mentality to everything he does, and he brings that extra dynamic and fight to our team. It’s something that every team needs, and Evan gives it to us every night.”
Kay, who played for Smith as a sophomore but decided to rest last winter for baseball, really didn’t seem to mind the fans in the Northport section showering him with disparaging chants about his physique.
“I play with a lot of passion, and to have the fans notice me from both sides, means a lot to me,” Kay said. “I heard the Northport people chanting ‘Eat a Salad’ and I feed off stuff like that. It just fueled me even more because I knew that I was having an impact on the game and helping us win.”
But Kay and Commack were not sitting down for a celebratory post-game meal just yet.
With 1:45 to play in the game, Cipollino stole the ball as a result of Northport’s press, drove to the hoop, and was fouled by 6’5” Cougar forward Devin Spahn. It made the score 42-41.
After the basket, the usually stoic Cipollino slammed the padded wall behind the basket and screamed with primal delight. He was mobbed by his teammates and serenaded by the Northport student section, just feet away.
“I really wanted to get this win and at that moment, the emotions came out of me,” Cipollino said, who led all scorers with 19. “It was a great game.”
Cipollino’s three-point play brought the Tigers to within one point and Northport continued to apply pressure in the backcourt. They created another loose ball and it squirted to Fenlon at three-quarter court and he quickly fired a pass to Boylan, who would have had an uncontested layup. But the pass was too far in front of Boylan. It sailed underneath the basket and out of bounds, and the ball went back to Commack, who was extremely fortunate to still have the lead.
“I just misjudged the pass, and it’s going to stick with me for a while,” said a distraught Fenlon, who played another solid game with six points, seven rebounds, and four blocked shots. “It changed the game, but I have to use it as motivation and not make the same mistakes in the future when it matters most.”
Always the teacher, D’Eloia was philosophical in his post-game remarks.
“I told Brendan and all of the guys that everyone who steps on the floor is charged with finding something they could have done a little better throughout a game, and it’s never about one single play,” D’Eloia said. “A close-out, a sharper pass, getting to a loose ball. When you’re playing in a game like that, those little plays that you make, or don’t make, can put you either up by three or down by three. Tonight, they made more of those plays down the stretch.”
There was still time in the game, and it was Kay and Waga helping to make such plays to close it out. Kay killed some clock and drew a non-shooting foul. Waga snatched an offensive rebound and was fouled. He sank two free throws, and a prayer by Cipollino to tie at the final horn went unanswered. Commack was the team left standing and is now 12-3 on the year.
“I shoot with confidence because I know the hard work I put in during the off-season,” Waga said, who shared an embrace with his parents at center court right after the final horn. “I live for these types of moments when the pressure is high, and I feel like it brings out the best in a person.”
If this game is any indication, and with the Suffolk County playoffs just around the corner, the best is likely yet to come.