By Steven Zaitz
The inside of the Brentwood High School gymnasium is wallpapered with a half-century’s worth of championship basketball banners.
League titles, Suffolk County and Long Island crowns are all on display, as the facade behind the north basket at Stan Kellner Fieldhouse holds a rich hoops history.
The most recent decoration behind that basket is a Suffolk County Class AA Championship placard that the Indians earned when they scalped Northport Tigers by 27 points, right before the pandemic struck a year ago. They were Suffolk County champs in 2019 as well.
Short season or not, Brentwood seemed to be on a mission to roll right through anybody that stood in their way in 2021. They had been putting up massive scoring numbers and were winning by 40, 50 or 60 points every night, just for fun. Newsday’s top ranked player for Long Island, senior forward Jordan Riley, who has committed to Georgetown University, averaged an astounding 33 points a game, and he hit that exact mark in Brentwood’s first round win over Commack on Saturday, an 83-49 rout. This Indians team was seemingly an unstoppable force.
Insert immovable object here.
“We didn’t care about any of that,” said Northport junior power forward Dylan McNaughton. “Once the whistle blows, it’s their five guys versus our five guys. We are Northport.”
In one of the biggest upsets in recent high school basketball memory, the Tigers slipped past the Brentwood Indians, 58-56, on Sunday, to win the Suffolk County Conference I championship in a defensive yet thrilling contest that came right down to the wire.
“Our guys believed in the plan,” said an elated but exhausted Andrew D’Eloia, head coach of Northport. “We played a great brand of help defense, we rebounded well and we limited our turnovers. We have good players, we executed and we believed in each other. That’s the only way to beat a team like that.”
Senior guard and team captain Patrick Healy led the Tigers with 19 points. He and backcourt mate senior Robbie Kennedy, who had 10, poked and prodded at the Brentwood defense, exploiting small cracks and getting to the rim.
“They didn’t want to give us the ‘3’,” Healy said. “Robbie and I took what they were willing to give us.”
The Tigers only made five 3-point shots on eight attempts, both statistics well below their average.
“Our goal is to get a good shot on every possession,” D’Eloia said. “Patrick and Robbie did an excellent job of running the offense, sharing the basketball and when they had an opportunity to take an open driving lane, they did.”
Going strong to the basket against Brentwood is not for the faint of heart, especially for Kennedy who gave away significant height to the men who were guarding him.
“It’s like that every game I’ve ever played,” said Kennedy, who is listed at 5 feet 9 inches. “I’m always the shortest guy on the floor but I make up for it with confidence in myself.”
He had enough confidence to make what would be the final and decisive bucket of the game with less than a minute to go, and the score tied at 54-54. He drove to the basket against Brentwood’s Marquese Dennis and Billy Lucate, slid between them with a semi-Euro step and banked it in with a right-handed scoop.
“It feels amazing,” said Kennedy on his winning shot. “I’ve been here for four years and this is a great way to end my high school career.”
To get the opportunity to play in this historic title bout, Northport had to beat a game Ward Melville team on Feb. 27. They did that with a 45-32 win in a contest that took place at Northport High School. Healy led the team with 15 points and forward Jake Santamaria posted 10.
Although the final margin was 13, the game was tight for three quarters and the Patriots even enjoyed a four-point lead at halftime. That enjoyment was short-lived as the Tigers blitzed Ward Melville, 24-9 in the fourth quarter.
Santamaria had all 10 of his points in that decisive quarter, and McNaughton grabbed six rebounds and had 11 total boards for the game. In the two games, McNaughton, who also plays linebacker and quarterback for the Tiger football team, had 21 points and 22 rebounds.
“Dylan is a smart, skilled player with a great basketball demeanor,” D’Eloia said. “He’s a three-sport kid, and he competes hard.”
Against Brentwood, McNaughton caught an elbow in the face in the first quarter and played with a bloody nose plug for the rest of the game, a fitting metaphor for the hard-scrabble style that propelled the Tigers to victory and will now give them the opportunity to redecorate the walls of their gym.