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Despite loss of best player in state, Hills East reaches Suffolk Class AA semifinals

Shane Dean had 18 points, and Max Caspi and Dante Green each scored 16 as the Thunderbirds (18-4) scored the first seven points of the game and then went wire-to-wire for the win. 

Half Hollow Hills East's Shane Dean (11) looks

Half Hollow Hills East's Shane Dean (11) looks to get past North Babylon's Bradley Celestin (12) during the Suffolk boys basketball Class AA quarterfinal at North Babylon High School on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Photo Credit: Richard T. Slattery

Half Hollow Hills East was both loud and proud as it issued a statement to the rest of the field in the Suffolk Class AA boys basketball tournament: the Thunderbirds are the two-time defending county champion and the crown is theirs until someone takes it from them.

North Babylon took a crack at it on its home court Saturday in a quarterfinal and came up woefully short. Hills East charged back into the semifinals with a decisive 66-51 victory and will face Longwood on Wednesday.

Shane Dean had 18 points, and Max Caspi and Dante Green each scored 16 as the Thunderbirds (18-4) scored the first seven points of the game and then went wire-to-wire for the win. The Bulldogs (19-3) trailed by double figures for the final 14 minutes.

“The key for us is we don’t think winning a [county] championship is our right,” said Caspi, a 6-4 senior center. “We understand that everything is earned and we have to go get it. So that’s what we’re trying to do in every game.”

Hills East captured the 2018 Suffolk and Long Island championships behind the play of Newsday Long Island Player of the Year Savion Lewis, who was also New York State’s Mr. Basketball. It reached the state public school final before falling to unbeaten Liverpool.

“We knew we were going to have to adjust to losing Savion,” Thunderbirds coach Peter Basel said, verging on becoming emotional, “but I thought we were good enough to be a playoff team. Shane is the only returning starter, but they have really developed to make up for what we lost. It’s really special that this group has been able to get to where we are.”

“We had so much talent on last year’s team — it was just hidden behind Savion,” Caspi said. “It had to be that way because he was the best out of all of us and would score 30 or 40 a night. But what people couldn’t see, it’s on display now.”

Said Dean: “We want to prove that even though we lost a lot of players from last season’s team, we still have what it takes this year.”

The Thunderbirds were all over North Babylon from the jump with Green scoring on a drive, Shamar Moore-Hough hit a pull-up jumper and Dean hitting a long three-pointer off a turnover, the first of his four treys. Bulldogs coach Brendan McCaffrey called a quick timeout but it only halted the onslaught for a moment. Dean hit his third long three-pointer with a minute left in the first quarter for an 18-9 lead and Hills East never looked back.

“It’s good to see Shane playing this way,” Basel said. “He’s been on the team for three seasons and deserves this time to shine.”

North Babylon’s Frank Toney (11 points) was hamstrung by early foul trouble and it proved a big hurdle to the Bulldogs getting back in the game. They fell further and further back in a hail of turnovers.

“Savion took us to places we’d never been, but he made an impact on all the players on this team,” Basel said. “They saw what his work ethic and commitment could bring and they have followed the lead.”

“We are the team that knows what it’s like to get to the end and what it takes to get there,” Caspi said. “We should have the most heart to get back because of that experience.”

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