By Andy Jacobs
Two teams anxious to reclaim local bragging rights and also turn their fortunes around in the final days of the regular season finally met for the first time last Wednesday evening. By the time the final buzzer sounded, it was the host Valhalla Vikings who emerged with a 55-50 victory over archrival Westlake in a game that wasn’t decided until the last 30 seconds.
Michael Giuliano scored a game-high 24 points, Basiaka Butcher added 20 and Devan Cooper provided a second-half spark as the Vikings improved to 10-4.
“It was a good high school game,” said Vikings head coach Rich Clinchy after his team had ended a skid in which it had lost three of its previous four games. “It may not be beautiful basketball, but it was tough basketball. When you play Westlake, it’s always a physical game. You know they’re gonna play good defense. You know they pass the ball well. They play like a team out there, a very good team.”
For the Wildcats, the loss was their fifth in a row and dropped them a game under .500. They were led by Justin Silva’s 16 points and Martin Sunjic’s 13 and spent almost the entire evening trailing the Vikings by a few points. Westlake’s only lead of the game, 41-40, came 40 seconds into the fourth quarter on a 3-point shot by Mark Malandruccolo and only lasted for 15 seconds.
“You know, it was a couple possessions that could’ve gone either way,” said Westlake coach Chad Charney. “There were a couple of layups and little chippies we missed. We missed a big 3 in the corner and then they made a big one. Refs, we can complain all we want, but we’ve gotta put the ball in the basket in a game like that.”
Just two minutes into the contest, it seemed that the Wildcats might be in for a long night. Valhalla opened up a quick 6-0 lead with a pair of layups by Butcher and then another from Giuliano. But the Wildcats responded immediately with their own 6-0 spurt as JJ Jackette drove the lane for a bucket and then Silva followed with consecutive baskets.
In the final minute of the first quarter, Valhalla got a fast-break layup by Giuliano and a left-handed layup by Basiaka and took a 15-11 lead into the second period. A pair of 3-pointers from Giuliano, one from the left elbow and the other from the right, helped the Vikings build their largest lead of the game, 23-13, with 4:42 to go in the half.
But once again, Westlake battled right back, scoring the next nine points as Silva connected on a 3-point shot and a pullup 17-foot jumper, Jack Neglia made a couple of free throws and then Sunjic scored inside. A 15-foot baseline jumper by Jackette with four seconds remaining sent the teams off the court at halftime with the Wildcats trailing just 27-26.
Giuliano scored five early points when the second half began, enabling Valhalla to stretch its slim lead to six points. The Wildcats, though, were able to withstand the Vikings’ stepped-up defensive pressure and moved to within two points after a put-back by Neglia, who scored six of his 10 points in the third quarter, and then a bucket by Silva. Another put-back, this time by Sunjic, with 28 seconds remaining in the third quarter brought Westlake within 40-38 entering the fourth.
“They handled the pressure very well,” said Clinchy about the Wildcats. “Once they broke the backcourt, they took it down the lane real well. We had to change defenses halfway through the third and then in the fourth. We changed the pressure defense. I don’t know if it was better, but we changed it.”
After battling from behind all night, the Wildcats finally grabbed the lead in the first minute of the fourth quarter when Malandruccolo got open in the right corner and drained a 3-pointer. But the Westlake lead was brief as Basiaka tied the game with a free throw and then followed with a right-baseline 15-foot jumper.
The teams were tied for the fourth and final time at 43-apiece when Giuliano gave Valhalla the lead for good by making both ends of a 1-and-1 with 5:32 left in the game. His two free throws started a 7-0 Viking run that was capped with a Giuliano layup on a pass from Cooper with 3:25 on the clock. Silva managed to drain a 3-point shot with 1:20 to go, moving the Wildcats within 52-48, but that was as close as they got.
Two free throws with 31.8 seconds left by Cooper, who scored all nine of his points after halftime and delighted the home fans with a couple of acrobatic layups in traffic, gave Valhalla a six-point advantage and all but sealed the outcome.
“Devan Cooper, when he came back in the second half, made the difference in terms of his quickness,” said Clinchy. “And of course that one shot (hanging in midair with 1:35 left), which is, you know, whatever, it goes in. So I think he made the difference there.”
“You know, it’s a tough thing,” said the Wildcats’ Charney about his team’s recent losing streak. “Last year, we had a really good team, and we graduated nine guys. And basically last year we had a nine-man rotation. We returned one guy who was in that regular rotation. So it’s been a learning curve.”
The Wildcats did close their week by defeating Pleasantville on Saturday, but Charney knows there’ll be plenty more challenges for his players as they conclude the regular season with four games this coming week.
“It’s not gonna get any easier,” he said. “It’s all good teams and we’re just hoping to continue to play like we did tonight and get ready for the playoffs.”
While Clinchy insists he’s taking things one game at a time, he too has an eye on the upcoming sectionals.
“The key thing at the end of the year is who has good practices,” he said. “The quality of your finish is determined by your practices. If you don’t continually improve, you’re gonna underachieve at the end. That’ll be the test in the next two weeks.”
Andy is a sports editor at Examiner Media, covering seven high schools in the mid-Westchester region with a notebook and camera. He began there in the fall of 2007 following 15 years as a candid photographer for the largest school picture company in the tri-state area.