It was four years ago that Mike Agostino took over at the helm of the Smithtown West boys’ basketball team, and since then, the team has come full circle.
In 2012, in the Bulls’ last League III game of the season, they traveled to Riverhead to duke it out for the conference title, where Riverhead pulled away with a one-point win, 72-71.
This time, the Bulls, at 10-1 heading into Tuesday’s contest, handily outscored the Blue Waves 64-38 to seal sole possession of the League III title. It was the first time Smithtown West had achieved that feat since 1968, according to Agostino.
“I’m so grateful,” he said. “Winning the league title is almost as good as winning the county championship, because the county title is a result of a tournament, but this you have to play 14 games. Everyone knows us, everyone knows our starters and our bench guys, everyone scouts you, so to be able to win a league championship is so special.”
Both teams were slow to start, but Smithtown West junior Greg Giordano kept the Bulls in the game with a free throw at 5:32 to tie it 1-1, and followed it up with a 3-pointer at the 4:54 mark to knot the game at 4-4.
From there, the Bulls charged ahead with senior Matt English knocking in a layup and Giordano netting another trifecta. Seconds later, senior Nick Grande swiveled around defenders as he jumped up to face the rim and tacked on a field goal, to help his team to an 11-4 advantage.
“We came a long way since our first loss in the first of the season against Copiague,” said English, who finished with 10 points and a team-high 11 rebounds. “We’ve really come together. We’re playing like a family.”
Riverhead tacked on a field goal of its own to close the gap to 11-6 after the first eight minutes of play. In the second stanza, Riverhead scored a free-throw point at 3:59 to bring the score to 18-10, and the Bulls held the Blue Waves scoreless until 15.6 seconds, where Riverhead swished a 3-pointer. In that time though, the Bulls tacked on 12 points, and used fouls to keep their opponent at bay, with Riverhead coming up scoreless from the charity stripe at three different appearances.
“We came out firing and we held them to 13 points in the first half, which is tremendous for our defense,” said Smithtown West junior Kyle LaGuardia, who finished with two field goals and seven rebounds.
The Bulls ran away with the game in the third, outscoring Riverhead 22-10.
Smithtown West sophomore Chris Crespo, who finished with a game-high 14 points, five assists and five rebounds, opened the final quarter with a three-pointer, and scored two points off a 1-and-1 opportunity minutes later, to help his team to a 30-point lead, 57-27.
“This is my second year on varsity and I didn’t know it would take off this fast,” Crespo said. “Last year we were alright, but it feels great to see such a big improvement at such a fast pace this year.”
With 4:04 left to play, Agostino called a timeout after a Riverhead travel call, to swap out his starters. Over the next four minutes, Riverhead outscored Smithtown West 11-3, but the Bulls’ bench kept its commanding defense in tact, stealing passes and grabbing rebounds.
“We played typical Smithtown West basketball,” Agostino said. “We were strong inside, we defended, we took care of the ball and that’s what we said was going to be the key — not only stopping them, but getting the rebound and being able to get it out cleanly without losing it.”
Agostino said he still feels like his team has room to grow, though.
“I don’t feel like we’ve reached our full potential,” he said. “I know that there are kids in that locker room who haven’t played as well as they’re capable of playing, and it’s my responsibility to get them to that point. I’m happy with the way they are right now, and I told them the nostalgic part is really sweet, but once we start practice tomorrow, it’s over.”
The head coach credits his seniors for shaping the team this season, adding that they’re focused on competing, and don’t stop until the buzzer sounds.
That winning mentality is trickling down, the players said, but the Bulls still credited their coach for helping them achieve greater and greater success with each passing season.
“He’s a great leader — knows how to play the game right,” English said. “In the beginning of the season, our first goal was to win the league title and the second goal was to make some damage in the playoffs. We’ve got the first one done, and now it’s onto the next.”