There was no way to prepare for it. It was a scenario so rare, so bizarre to watch unfold on a basketball court, that it begged a litany of questions: What defensive scheme is most appropriate? How best to space the floor on offense? Is this even legal?
In a season riddled with hurdles, the Roslyn girls basketball team had yet to encounter a more daunting challenge — or a stranger one:
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When junior Samantha Busch fouled out of Roslyn’s home game against Roosevelt on Jan. 15 with four minutes remaining, it left the Bulldogs — who began the game with only five players — with only senior Samantha Wiebe, senior Jordan Tullman, sophomore Morgan Davey and freshman Emily Cohen on the floor.
“It was crazy to watch, definitely,” Busch said.
Leading 41-34 and fighting for its second win of the season, Roslyn had to endure an unusual disadvantage — the equivalent of a Roosevelt power play — as it attempted to fend off a team that had beaten the Bulldogs by 23 points on Dec. 15.
In New York State, girls high school basketball adheres to modified NCAA rules. Under Rule 3, Section 3 of the NCAA Women’s Basketball 2015-16 Rulebook, Articles 1 and 2 state: “At the start of the game, each team shall consist of five players . . . Each team may continue to play with fewer than five players when all other squad members are not eligible or able to play.”
“Being on the court at that time and realizing there’s going to be one person open for them every single time,” Tullman said, “you don’t expect that to be something that might pop up when you go into a game.”
Unable to match up against Roosevelt’s players, Roslyn went to a zone defense, playing a little farther off the ball than usual.
“There was a lot of running as fast as we could to whoever had the ball,” Tullman said. “We just played the best defense that we could. And we were keeping them in check.”
But the situation proved too difficult to overcome, and Roslyn wound up losing to Roosevelt, 44-42.
Everyone in the gym took note of Roslyn’s team effort, including Roosevelt coach Don Crummell, who felt compelled to come over to speak to the Bulldogs after the final whistle.
“You had to kind of acknowledge the mere fact of what they were doing,” Crummell said. “Talent-wise, are they the best team? Probably not. But man, the way they played together as a unit, the way they played for each other . . . They represented high school basketball the way it was meant to be played.”
Entering the season, the Bulldogs didn’t expect to be so strapped on their roster, but injuries have plagued them. Against Roosevelt, three Roslyn players were forced to sit.
“We walk into gyms with five, six kids on some nights,” coach Noreen Naughton said, “and the opponent is like, ‘Where’s the rest of your team?’ ”
But the Bulldogs have run with the underdog mentality.
“A lot of teams, when they see us come in, they say, ‘Oh, Roslyn. We beat them by 20 points. This is going to be an easy game,’ ” Busch said. “Or, ‘That’s Roslyn. They don’t win many games.’ But we always come to the gym saying, ‘We’re gonna win this game. We’re gonna win this game.’ No matter if we beat them last time or if we lost to them by 20.”
The two-point loss represented a shift from the last time the teams played each other, and Roslyn has proved the improvement is no fluke. The Bulldogs lost their first 10 games of the season but finally got over the hump with a 52-39 win over New Hyde Park on Jan. 12. After losing to Plainedge by 33 points on Dec. 18, Roslyn fell to the Red Devils by three on Tuesday.
The Bulldogs insist it hasn’t been anything technical or strategic that has led to their upward trend. Their shooting percentage hasn’t skyrocketed; their turnover ratio hasn’t plummeted. It simply has boiled down to chemistry.
Roslyn’s coaching staff is big on team-building activities. Take, for example, the beginning of Thursday’s practice. Rather than anything traditional — perhaps running laps or dribbling drills — Naughton brought in a kickboxing instructor to get things started.
“We’re using things outside of basketball,” assistant coach Tom Valentino said. “It’s bringing them together. They’re bonding. And they’re having fun.”
Wiebe described a rising comfort level among the teammates — the other four being Laura Cardillo, Nicole Nissan, Mackenzie Rich and Kendall Reichbach — that still was in the early stages of its development at the beginning of the season.
“We learned each other. We learned how to play together,” Wiebe said. “We’ve grown so much in that month period. We get a big school bus when we go to the games, and there’s so few of us, we’re all in this little area and we share stories and it’s great. We’re just getting closer.”
Roslyn dropped to 1-12 overall and 1-8 in Nassau A-II with the loss to Roosevelt, but the Bulldogs proved something that night: to the opposing players and coaches, to the fans in attendance, to themselves. For this band of friends, whether it’s five players or even four players, it doesn’t really matter. “When we’re on the court together,” Busch said, “we play as one.”