The clock struck midnight for the Cinderella Pleasantville boys’ basketball team during last Tuesday’s opening round of the state Class B tournament.
A 10-point, first-half lead for the Panthers disappeared and Section 9 champion Spackenkill took command after halftime and went on to a convincing 69-50 victory in a regional playoff game at Yorktown High School. Despite six 3-pointers and a team-high 20 points from junior forward Nick Salzarulo, the Panthers’ memorable season came to an end just three days after they captured their first Section 1 hoops title in 16 years.
“That was the best team we’ve played all year,” said head coach Chris Welsh not long after his Panthers had been overwhelmed by hot-shooting Spackenkill in the second half. “That’s a very complete team. They’ve got a good point guard. They had wings who knocked down shots, a forward who was jumping through the roof, and a big guy. I mean, that’s a total team.”
For the game’s first 16 minutes, though, it seemed the Panthers could compete with the bigger Spartans. Despite the fact star guard Mike Manley was enduring a nightmare first half in which his feared shooting touch abandoned him and he misfired on 11 of his 12 shots, Pleasantville still managed to maintain a lead all the way until the final second before halftime.
Salzarulo’s 3-pointer just 30 seconds into the game put the Panthers on the scoreboard first. He added two more treys in the opening quarter as Pleasantville, helped by the Spartans’ abysmal 1-for-9 shooting at the foul line, opened up a 16-8 advantage. The Panthers built their largest lead of the evening, 18-8, when Jeremy Stone scored on a put-back 12 seconds into the second quarter.
After Spackenkill responded with a 9-1 run, Salzarulo provided his fourth 3-pointer to give the Panthers a 22-17 edge with just under three minutes left in the half. Manley soon made his only field goal of the first half, an 18-foot pullup jumper from the right baseline, to maintain the five-point lead with 2:12 remaining.
But a basket by Ezequiel De La Cruz and two free throws by Camron Abalos, the point guard who finished with a game-high 21 points, narrowed the Spartans’ deficit to 25-24. When Manley apparently misread the scoreboard clock and launched a 35-foot jumper with seven seconds still left, Spackenkill took advantage by pushing the ball up the floor and taking the lead as Dhyqueem Lewison converted at the buzzer on a put-back while falling to the floor.
A fast-break layup by Stone 50 seconds into the third quarter gave Pleasantville its final lead of the night. The Spartans soon answered with four successive baskets in the midst of a 13-3 burst that opened up a nine-point cushion. A 3-pointer by Tucker Lee, who wound up making five of them, stretched Spackenkill’s lead to 44-32 with 3:08 to go in the period.
“In the second half, they absolutely shot the lights out,” said Welsh about the Spartans. “They came out with a lot of enthusiasm. I’m sure they felt like they should’ve been up by more than one at the half because, on our end, we were thankful to only be down by one considering all the foul trouble and poor shooting.”
The Panthers’ Charlie McPhee provided three baskets in the final minutes of the third quarter, helping P’ville close to within 46-38 heading to the final period. But the Spartans’ Hayden Peck drained a 3-pointer from the left corner to open the fourth quarter and the Panthers never got any closer than 10 points the rest of the way.
Manley, who scored seven of his 12 points in the final quarter, made the last basket of his standout Panther career on a 19-foot jumper from the top of the key with exactly five minutes remaining. A Salzarulo bank shot with 2:36 left cut the Panthers’ deficit to 60-50, but half a minute later Lee knocked down his fifth 3-pointer to all but clinch the contest for the Spartans, who scored the game’s final nine points.
With 55 seconds to go and the outcome decided, Welsh summoned Manley and the rest of the dejected Panther starters to the bench.
“A player isn’t defined by one game,” said Welsh after watching Manley end his varsity career just 3 for 21 from the field against the Spartans after earning MVP honors last weekend at the County Center.
“He’s the best player I’ve ever coached. He’s had an unbelievable career. He’s made an awful lot of shots for us, scored an awful lot of points. He will not be defined by tonight’s game. He’s a special player, a great kid. He’s been an absolute pleasure to coach. And losing tonight can’t take away the fact, from him or from anyone on the team, that they’re still champs. They are Section 1 champs, and that is what we will remember about this season.”
As it turned out, the Spartans, especially with junior forward Kyiev Bennormon, just had too much of a size advantage. But Welsh knows the game could’ve been closer if his team had made a few more of its shots.
“As well as we shot the ball at the County Center and how fine-tuned our offense was, tonight we couldn’t hit anything,” he said. “Listen, this game is what it is. This is not what we will focus on. We’ll focus on all the great things that we achieved and accomplished this year. And, at the end of the day, I think the biggest regret I’ll have is that we don’t have practice tomorrow.”