It's not as though Tavon Sledge flips a switch when the fourth quarter begins. The Half Hollow Hills West star always seems to be a high-energy player. But there are times late in games when Sledge provides a power surge that juices up his team and electrifies a crowd.
"The fourth quarter is the most important part of the game. I want to take over," said Sledge, who did just that in Friday night's Suffolk Class AA championship game. He scored 14 of his 26 points in the final period, including the last six, as Hills West held off West Babylon, 64-56, before a raucous crowd of about 1,800 at Stony Brook University.
"He's a winner," Hills West coach Bill Mitaritonna said after Sledge led his team into the Section XI Large Schools-Small Schools championship game against Harborfields at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Farmingdale State. The Colts are 17-4 after beating the Eagles for the second time in three meetings. West Babylon finished 18-4.
Sledge scored seven straight points, including a three-point play on a fast-break feed from Emile Blackman (11 points), to give Hills West its largest lead, 56-44, with 4:39 remaining. But the Eagles, who shot 14-for-14 from the foul line, hit four free throws and Matt Sullivan (21 points, five three-pointers) and Matt McCardle hit long treys during a 10-1 run that made it 57-54 with 2:34 to play.
After West Babylon cut it to 58-56 with 2:08 left, Mitaritonna called time. "Coach said I only had three fouls and to play him [Sullivan] aggressively and take a chance," Sledge said. "So I went for the steal."
It was a mano-a-mano duel near midcourt. Sullivan, the Eagles' stellar point guard with a deadly outside shot, dribbling upcourt looking to create against Sledge, the tough-minded Iowa State-bound dynamo, who stayed with him step for step. Suddenly, Sledge struck with the quickness of an electric current, deflecting the ball away from Sullivan to Blackman, who passed ahead to Sledge. His scoop shot rimmed out, but he drew the foul and sank both free throws for a 60-56 lead with 48 seconds left.
On the next possession, Chris Cox made a steal and fed Sledge for an easy layup that clinched it.
"They cut the lead and we had to regroup," said the Colts' Anthony Rollino, who made four treys for 12 points. "We preach defense. When they got it from 12 to two, we had to get a stop and get a bucket. It's what we do. No one was nervous."
Especially not Sledge, who eagerly switched over to cover Sullivan when Rollino picked up his fourth foul late in the third quarter. "He looked at me and said, 'I got it, Coach,' " Mitaritonna said of a tactical change that he admitted "was by default.''
But there was nothing faulty about Sledge's wiring. "He's very good, and when he's hot, he's unstoppable," Sledge said of Sullivan. "But I think I kind of fatigued him a little at the end."
And supplied the final jolt.