BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — They went further — in miles and merit — than many expected, and though they didn’t go as far as they would have liked, the Westbury players took great comfort in having made the journey together.
“We felt like one big family the whole weekend,” senior point guard Brandon Ottley said after the Green Dragons’ first trip to the state final four as a Class AA team ended with a 72-38 loss to 10-time state champion Mount Vernon on Saturday. “For the most part, it still feels a little unreal. No one expected us to go this far.”
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Westbury’s road to the Snow Belt — where remnants of a recent blizzard that pushed the winter snowfall to more than 130 inches dominated the landscape — began with a non-league win over New Hyde Park on Dec. 7. It included a Nassau AA-II regular-season championship with an 11-1 mark and a run through the Nassau playoffs as a No. 2 seed.
The Green Dragons (20-4) defeated Farmingdale, No. 3 Baldwin and No. 1 Uniondale before beating Half Hollow Hills East in a thrilling Long Island championship game, 61-60, on Jalyn Dunlap’s bank shot off a missed free throw with 10 seconds left.
“We won the first Nassau County double-A title in school history. We won the first double-A Long Island championship in school history,” Westbury coach Dave Graff said. “I’m super-proud of them.”
The Green Dragons were overmatched Saturday against a team that had more size, more depth and more postseason experience. And yet, neither team seemed as if it had ever played a big game when the first quarter ended with Westbury on top 7-6. Yes, even extra points were hard to come by.
But the Knights (22-4), who will face Fairport on Sunday for the state Class AA title, began to assert themselves defensively in the second quarter. Center Gregory Calixte, a 6-8 senior who is being heavily recruited by several Division I colleges, dominated without posting significant stats. He had only one block, four points and five rebounds, but along with 6-5 forward Noah Morgan (13 points, including the 1,000th of his career, and nine rebounds), he greatly influenced the game by altering countless shots and forcing many poor ones.
“They had a lot of size,” said Ottley, who had five points and two assists in his final game. “Defensively, they were prepared for whatever we did.”
Jonathan Dean, with 12 points, was the only Westbury player to score in double figures. Mount Vernon had four.
“We just had a horrible game,” Graff said, “but we haven’t faced interior size like that all year. Part of the reason there was a lid on the basket was their interior defense. And we had a lot of unforced turnovers. You can’t do that against a team like that. Then they get out on the break and get rolling.”
Mount Vernon took a 25-17 lead at the half on Eric Monroe’s long buzzer-beating three-pointer. But the Knights, who have the most state titles in NYSPHSAA history, really got rolling in the third quarter, scoring 11 straight points in one stretch and taking a 47-24 lead.
“I thought we missed a golden opportunity in the first half,” Graff said. “We came out flat and they weren’t shooting well. If we had played better, we might’ve been leading at halftime. In the second half, they raised their game and we didn’t.”
Still, Graff enjoyed this journey with team and community. He pointed to the fans behind the Westbury bench, who were standing and cheering after the game, and as he walked with his team to the locker room, he shouted, “Thank you!”
He delivered the same message to his team.
Said Graff, “They’ll always be champions to me.”