All photos by Steven Zaitz
At the start of the Suffolk County girls basketball title game, everything was taking shape as one would expect.
On the campus of Stony Brook University, Walt Whitman Wildcat superstar guard Iris Hoffman threw up a long brick early in the first quarter against Northport on Saturday afternoon, and Lady Tiger Forward Kennedy Radziul collected the rebound, raced down the court and scored to put Whitman in an 11-0 hole.
The heavily favored top-seeded Tigers, who still have the burning memory of losing in last year’s Suffolk County AA Final to another of their archrivals Longwood, was in a fury. Whitman, who had never made it to a final, seemed as if they were simply happy to be participating in one.
But over the course of a game, stuff happens. Things change.
Lady Cat guard Casey Wagner picked Radziul’s pocket with six minutes remaining in the half that made the score 19-13 in favor of the Lady Tigers, as this was an early example of the thousand paper cuts that were to come for head coach Rich Castellano and his Tigers, who were looking to win their 11th Suffolk AA title in school history.
Northport would lead by six, seven, eight and nine for much of the middle third of the game but they could not swat away the pesky Cats. Whitman, despite Hoffman’s departure from the game when she picked up her fourth personal foul, crept all the way back. When Wagner threw a pinpoint baseball pass to forward Kathleen O’Mara to end the third, and then O’Mara hit on a gorgeous reverse layup to start the fourth, the Wildcats led 36-33.
Northport senior forward Sarah Morawski had the best game of her four-year varsity career with five three-pointers and 22 total points, but no other Tiger was in double figures.
Individual scoring wasn’t top of mind for Castellano and his girls who were craving to play the Nassau County champion. After last year’s loss to the Lady Lions, a game in which they also led heading into the second half, they were determined to scratch and tiger-claw their way back in this one.
Down by five with time melting away fast, Claire Fitzpatrick, who was quiet for much of the afternoon, made a nifty steal and then nailed a big basket from long range that made the score 42-40 with three minutes to go.
But Hoffman, who was inserted back into the game with her four fouls, stormed down the middle of the floor and hooked a no-look pass to O’Mara in the left corner. O’Mara sank the 15-footer, and the Wildcats went up by four. Forward Emma Creighton, who wears a gigantic knee brace on her left leg, drove freely and aggressively to the rim on the Wildcats’ next possession and suddenly the Tiger deficit crept to five — and time grew short.
Morowski, in her 90th career game and certainly the most bittersweet, calmly hit a three after a Whitman free throw to cut a six-point lead in half to three, 46-43 — a one possession game. When Creighton threw the ball out of bounds for Whitman, the Tigers had their chance to tie with about a minute to go.
Radziul, who does most of her scoring from 10 feet away and in, had a good look for three from the right elbow but the ball hit the back, left side of the rim and fell harmlessly into the hands of O’Mara. Northport was now a painful runner-up for the second year in a row. The final score was 48-44.
The Lady Tigers and their sparkling 21-2 overall record will have to wait at least another year to play the Nassau AA champion and this loss, piled on top of last year’s heartbreak, will make that wait feel much longer than just one time around the sun.
Meanwhile the Wildcats, who are currently on a 12-game winning streak, will face the winner of Massapequa and Baldwin. Whoever wins that game will travel to Hudson Valley Community College near Albany in the middle of March to compete for the New York State title.