Thursday, February 27, 2014

Mount Vernon Survives Scare

It was a heavy weight fight all the way through, with both No.1 Mount Vernon and No.5 Mahopac absorbing and sustaining hard hits.

 Loose balls were chased at a furious pace. Elbows were exchanged. The basketball was pursued and ripped and protected as if it was the sought after Gold Ball. Every bucket had to be earned.

The pressure, ratcheted to ear-shattering crescendo, could be cut only with a machete the waning moments. It intensified during the final possession.

Mahopac guard R.J. Martinez, who was exceptional, launched a contested corner 3-pointer with under a second remaining.

Martinez' shot was off the mark, albeit Kevin Downes and his staff were incensed at a debatable no-call. Elbow contact was evident.

The game suddenly froze, as both fan bases jawed at each other and the MANIACS fervently called for the referee's job.

The Indians were not granted the foul. The refs resumed play with a final Mount Vernon possession.

Mount Vernon hoisted away the final 0.3 seconds of the clock, gutting out a physical, black-and-blue marked 43-40 victory in the Section 1/Class AA semifinal at the County Center.

"We just adapted to Mahopac's physical style," said Knights senior Brandon Martin, who knifed to the rim for a 43-40 lead with 1:56 remaining and came up with an immense steal with 34.3 seconds to play.

"That's basketball. It's a physical game. We just take pride in our defense. I told my teammates 'Non-stop pressure,' non-stop on defense. We came out of the second half down by five, we just came out with a lot of energy."

That energy resulted in furious ball-hounding and thorough, ramped up pressure on the Indians' slew of shooters.

The Knights (19-1) instigated timely turnovers during the final quarter.

Martin, a dieseled-up 6-foot-3 senior who was "in the gym all summer" following New Rochelle's historic, buzzer-beating 2013 championship win, left his fingerprints all over the win.

Back-to-back hustle plays created a blink-quick four-point swing, supplying Mount Vernon with adrenaline heading into halftime.

The surge of momentum was much-needed. The Knights wallowed under Mahopac's zone defense, shooting at an arctic clip during an irregular first half.

 The script changed in the second half. Martin led a well-distributed attack with nine points and eight rebounds. If "heart" was a category in the stat sheet, he would likely have been one of the leaders there.

"Brandon played like the Devil was chasing him," explained Knights head coach Bob Cimmino.

"He had work to do. What I'm most proud of with Brandon is the way he was able to maintain his frustration throughout. He was hurting at one point, his arms weren't exactly free. It's easy for any athlete to get frustrated and stop playing in those situations. He labored through it."

Martinez, who dropped a team-best 12 points, got loose for a runner that sliced a lead to 41-38 with a thread under three minutes remaining.

Sophomore forward Dan Foley cut it to 41-40, laying in Ryan Simone's handoff pass with 2:19 remaining.

The scrappy Indians (17-4) which make their money through in-your-grill defense, appeared drained offensively during the final 60 seconds.

They missed three shots that would have sent the game into overtime. Leading up to that point, the Indians savored possession and second chance opportunities.

 Led by Simone's 15 rebounds, the Indians out-dueled the Knights on the boards, 45-39.

Martinez, the All-Section off guard who averaged 16.6 points this post-season, got the ball following a Kevin Downes timeout with 05.6 seconds left. With Tyger Hackett heavily contesting the last shot, the senior fell off the mark on a controversial no-call.

Sparked by Martinez' 10 early points, Mahopac played the Knights tougher than any Section 1 foe this season.

The physicality on the court mirrored the extra-curricular activity between two passionate and raucous fan bases in the stands.

 A brief fight spilled out on the County Center balcony following the game, with punches exchanged and tempers flaring.

The two sides were separated by Security. A war of words continued to emanate from the balcony, before security was able to quell the beef by dispersing the two crowds.

It was an ugly scene.

Fitting, since the game was by no means aesthetically pleasing.

There were a few flops, a few elbows, and plenty off-balanced and manipulated shots in traffic. There were turnovers and wild scraps for possession.

By the time the fourth quarter came around, it would come down to which team embodied the junkyard dog mentality harder.

Mahopac was able to sustain possession, corralling rebounds. The Knights made a concentrated effort to halt the Indians' routine tempo and pressure their shooters after halftime. This was gritty, hard-nosed basketball. Not exactly the prettiest display.

"I might ask for my $8 back (If I were a fan)," Cimmino said.

The Knights constructed the lead in quick-hit fashion. Akeem Krubally knocked down a 3-pointer, Marquise Henry scored on a surge to the rack, and Devonte Banner emerged from a clogged-up lane with a stickback.

 Foley leaked out for a fast break bucket, knifing the lead to 36-34 with 5:03 remaining in the fourth quarter. Buoyed by their trademark pressure, Mount Vernon's second wind propelled them to the title game.

Now, the perennially potent Knights are slated for a date with red-hot Spring Valley in a heavily-billed championship.

Spring Valley features a Division-I inside-outside tandem in Manhattan-commit Ricky McGill and bruising forward Kai Mitchell. McGill, a junior guard, helped Spring Valley close out a wild 67-66 victory over Clarkstown South with an ultra-clutch fourth quarter.

For Mount Vernon, this is about resolving unfinished business.

"Every Mount Vernon player wants to go Gold their senior year," said Cimmino.

"Spring Valley is an excellent team. It is going to be a shootout at high noon."