Nae’Jon Ward knew his team needed him, so when the going got tough he did what he knows best — scored.
The junior point guard went 3-for-4 from the free-throw line in the game’s last 15 seconds and racked up 13 second-half points in Bridgehampton’s 63-61 win over Academy Charter for the school’s first Long Island Championship Class D crown.
“Whenever my team is counting on me, I’ve gotta make it happen,” said Ward, who finished the March 1 game at Center Moriches High School with 24 points, hitting three three-point shots and converting seven of eight chances from the foul line. “In that moment, all that was going through my head is ‘I have to seal the game.’”
The Killer Bees started slowly. After a J.P. Harding (16 points, 10 rebounds) bucket, Academy Charter went on a 9-0 run, and led, by as many as 10 points, 19-9, before an Elijah White (18 points) buzzer-beating three-pointer closed the gap. White went on a tear in the second quarter, scoring 11 points and going 6-for-6 from the free-throw line, while Ward made all three of his shots from beyond the arc for a 38-33 halftime advantage.
“We didn’t really know what to expect,” White said, because Academy Charter fielded a team for the first time this season. “It was a little nerve-wracking, because all we heard was that they had two good guards and they were really scrappy. They never played a team that we played, so we had no judgement, just had to come out here and play our hardest.”
Ward hit both ends of a 1-and-1 opportunity after a long field goal to push the Killer Bees lead to 46-40 with 2:28 to go in the third, but three straight Academy Charter scores to end the period, and three more to start the fourth gave the team its first lead since the first quarter, 50-46.
Harding made a shot from under the basket off a feed from Ward, and swished two free throws to retie things at 50 before Ward completed a three-point play to force Academy Charter to call timeout. Jahqur Carr scored the front end of a 1-and-1 out of the break and grabbed his own rebound off his miss to give Bridgehampton a six-point lead, but three seemed to be Academy Charter’s lucky number, as a 6-0 run knotted the game for the final time at 56-all before a Ward field goal and two White free throws once again put the Killer Bees out front.
White said there’s always butterflies, but what made this win so special was the way his team was able to keep its composure when necessary, and score when it counted most.
“The whole time we played hard, we stuck together,” White said. “When clutch time came all of us hit free throws and made the layups we were supposed to.”
He let out a sigh of relief when Ward gave Bridgehampton a 4-point lead after hitting hitting two foul shots with seconds remaining, but Academy Charter cut the lead to one on a three-point basket with just 3.3 seconds on the clock. Ward was fouled and hit one of two three throws to give Bridgehampton the two-point victory.
Bridgehampton coach Ron White said he stressed to his team the importance of defense if it wanted to win a championship, despite Justin Faulkner finishing with 22 points and Jarrett Dingle adding 16 for Academy Charter. While the rebounding wasn’t there in the first half, Bridgehampton finished with 20, and the Killer Bees made fouls count by finishing 22-for-28 from the free-throw line.
“We were gritty, trying to get back to the old-school Killer Bees defense, and I’m going to make sure that comes together for us going forward,” White said. “These guys didn’t want to fail, had the crowd on their back, and I commend them for going hard and not quitting.”
The coach smiled as he rubbed the golden basketball atop the trophy with the first-ever Class D Long Island championship title etched on the plaque below. Although the Bees have won nine state titles, they have never had to play for a Long Island title because there were no Class D schools in Nassau County.
“We came a long way,” said Ward, who along with White made the All-Tournament team. “This is where people didn’t think we’d make it, they didn’t think we’d get here. We came together as brothers, put in countless hours in the gym, and it’s paying off. We’re finally getting recognition for the things we’ve been doing, and I love it.”
Bridgehampton will play Section IX’s Roscoe at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh on Monday, March 4, at 6 PM. Roscoe held on to defeat Livingston Manor 45-44 to make it to the regional semifinals. The Killer Bees advanced to the finals last year after edging Livingston Manor 50-48.