It took more than three minutes for the Horace Greeley boys’ basketball team to finally put some points on the board in Friday evening’s Section One, Class AA quarterfinal playoff game.
Once the Quakers did, though, there was no stopping them.
Behind a dominant second quarter that broke open a close game, Greeley earned a 55-41 victory over the visiting Suffern Mounties. Brandon Gecaj scored a game-high 16 points, while Chris Melis added 15 as the Quakers punched their ticket to the Westchester County Center for Wednesday’s Class AA semifinals.
“The magical season continues,” said Quakers first-year head coach Felix Nicodemo shortly after his fourth-seeded team had put an end to a County Center drought that lasted almost 15 years. “I’m so happy for this team and all the kids on it. They deserve it. They’ve worked so hard. I’m speechless right now.”
Suffern, seeded 12th, had jumped out to an early 5-0 lead before Melis, driving to the basket at will, scored three consecutive baskets in an 80-second burst that gave the Quakers a lead they never relinquished the rest of the way.
“He was able to pick his spots and was able to get to the rim basically whenever he wanted and take high-percentage shots,” said Nicodemo about his star sophomore, who also finished the night with 10 rebounds. “On the scouting report, one of the things I identified was they were gonna have matchup problems with us, and we really took advantage of the dribble penetration.”
The Quakers were clinging to an 11-10 lead after the first eight minutes, but proceeded to score the first nine points of the second quarter. The spurt began with a Gecaj 15-foot baseline jumper that was soon followed by Greg Karr’s 3-pointer from the right elbow. Jeremy Block spun his way through the lane for a bucket, then Gecaj capped the run with a left-corner 18-footer to give the Quakers their first double-digit lead of the contest.
Suffern, struggling against the Quakers’ relentless zone press, went without a single point for nearly the first four minutes of the quarter and wound up getting outscored 16-3 in the period to fall into a 14-point halftime hole.
“I knew they were big, they were disciplined and they ran their sets very well,” said Nicodemo about the Mounties. “But we were prepared and were able to execute the game plan. We said we were gonna pack it in and if they were gonna hit some shots from the outside we would be OK as long as they’re contested because they really have an inside game.”
Greeley managed to open up an 18-point cushion when Karr, a senior who ended up with 10 points, connected on a leaner from left of the key with 4:17 remaining in the third quarter. But the Mounties closed the period with back-to-back 3-pointers from Anthony Grant-Johnson and Jimmie Warren to close within 37-26 heading to the final quarter.
A pair of free throws by Block, followed by Gecaj’s old-fashioned 3-point play, capped a 7-2 Quaker burst at the start of the fourth quarter that rebuilt a 16-point advantage with 4:13 left on the clock. But the Mounties weren’t quite done, answering immediately with a 9-2 run and moving to within 46-37 on two Will Krebs free throws with 2:01 to go.
That was as close as they would get, though, as Greeley sealed the outcome by scoring the game’s next nine points, seven of them from the free-throw line. The only bucket, a Melis finger roll in the lane with 1:14 remaining, gave the Quakers a 12-point cushion and all but assured they would soon be making the drive down to White Plains to meet top-seeded Mt. Vernon in the semifinals.
“You know, I pictured this and how it would feel, and I know a lot of the players did too,” said Nicodemo. “It felt just like we imagined it and I could not be happier for these kids that they get to experience this in our first year, all of us together.
“At the beginning of the season, we wrote down goals for this team,” he added. “The first thing was to beat Fox Lane. We did that. The second thing was to win the league. We did that. The third thing was to get a high seed in sectionals. We were able to do that. And the fourth thing was make it to the County Center. And we’re able to check that off now. Now the last thing is to hopefully play well enough where we can make a run, try to win the whole thing.”
But is beating the mighty Knights on the County Center floor asking too much of his players?
“I say it over and over,” answered Nicodemo. “If this team plays up to their potential, they can beat any team they step on the court with.”