Nick Grathwohl said crunch time is his prime time. He wasn’t kidding.
With 7.3 seconds left, the Southold senior came out of a timeout where head coach Lucas Grigonis had called for him to drive to the basket, potentially drawing a foul, and ended up finding some space on his favorite part of the court. With the ball in his hands just beyond the arc, and two Pierson defenders in front of him, he decided to let a shot fly. After he’d hit the ground from his jumper, he leapt to his feet and shook each leg — even before he found nothing but net — because he’d given his First Settlers their first lead since early in the second quarter, and ultimately scored the game-winner in a 62-60 upset of top-seeded Pierson Friday night. The victory secured Southold’s first Suffolk County Class C title since 2006, the year the team also won the Long Island title. Southold will face Nassau’s East Rockaway at Centereach High School March 10 in the southeast regional final, and also plays Class D champion Smithtown Christian Wednesday, February 19, in the overall county championship tournament.
“I love the end of the game. I had to step up and be there for my team,” said a breathless Grathwohl with an uncontainable smile. “I did not was to lose. When I released the shot, all I was thinking was, ‘Please, please Lord put that in the net.’’
Although not the play he’d drawn up, Grigonis said he knew his senior performs under pressure. The head coach also noted Grathwohl’s playoff stats for his career are even of high quality.
“He really does live for these kind of moments, and he succeeds,” Grigonis said. “I’ve been coaching for 10 years. I’ve had moments like this and sometimes you just have to ride with the emotion — and Nick rode with the emotion tonight.”
The Whalers, which went undefeated in League VII play, led by 12 with three-and-a-half minutes left to play before the Settlers closed the game on a 17-3 run. Senior Henry Brooks, who had 24 points, missed an off-balance jump-shot at the final buzzer that would have tied it. Pierson (14-7) won both teams’ regular-season matchups by a combined 45 points, but ran into foul trouble early and trailed 28-24 at halftime.
“We’re a third-quarter team. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to close it out,” said Pierson first-year head coach Will Fujita, a Southold alumnus who played for the Settlers when Grigonis was an assistant coach, and was a senior on the 2012 team that lost to the Whalers in the county championship. “I tip my cap to Southold. I have a lot of respect for their program. They played better than we did today.”
Pierson went on a 15-0 run in the third quarter capped by a pair of Wilson Bennett free throws at 3:07. The sophomore, who scored 14 of his 20 points in that stanza, scored eight during the streak, Brooks four, and Nick Egbert converted a three-point play. In a one-minute span down the stretch, Bennett received his third and fourth personal foul, and was tagged with his fifth on a block under the net with 3:25 left in the game. Fifteen seconds later, Egbert fouled out. Peter Schaefer, who’d hit a three-pointer with 25 seconds in the third to re-extend his team’s advantage, sealed a fake-and-make to try and boost his team following the loss of Egbert, but fouled out with just under a minute left. By that time, Southold (13-8) had already begun the risky move of fouling while entering the double bonus.
“It’s something we felt it was necessary to do to try to slow the game down and give us more opportunities,” Grigonis said. “Other than that one after 59-59 all the fouls were calculated.”
Grathwohl, who racked up nine of his 30 points in that final run, had fouled Brooks on an inbounds play. Fortunately, Brooks missed the first to put Pierson up by one before he redeemed himself with his fifth three-pointer of the game. It was the fifth free-throw miss for Brooks in the fourth quarter.
“They were a good free-throw shooting team throughout the season. We were quite surprised,” Grigonis said. “There were a lot of things that needed to align tonight to get this win, and by the basketball Gods they did.”