When the Half Hollow Hills East boys basketball team started slow Friday night, players didn’t blink.
"We’ve gotten out to some slow starts this year, but we never panic," said Derek Varlack, a senior captain. "We’ve been playing together forever, so we trust each other and we knew were going to come back."
They sure did.
After a sluggish first quarter, host and fourth-seeded Hills East turned on its transition game in a 70-51 win over No. 5 Ward Melville in a Suffolk Class AA quarterfinal.
Varlack scored seven fast-break points in the second quarter before a transition layup by fellow senior captain Xavier Lewis completed a 9-0 run and gave Hills East (16-6) a 28-26 lead. Ward Melville (18-4) answered with a corner three from Lorenzo Beaton and took a 29-28 lead into halftime.
Hills East coach Pete Basel credited the turnaround to the team’s defensive approach.
"Once we changed our defense to a zone-press, we were able to get some traps, deflections and steals to get our transition game going," Basel said.
Lewis scored five straight points to give Hills East a 35-33 lead, but Ward Melville didn’t back down and took a 41-35 lead before Hills East tied it at 41 on Varlack’s layup to beat the buzzer at the end of the third quarter.
Hills East built off that momentum with a big start to the fourth quarter. Adam Kirschenblatt opened with back-to-back corner threes and then Varlack scored two straight layups for a 51-41 lead. Before you knew it, the Thunderbirds had raced to a 19-point lead with three minutes left after three fast-break buckets (two by Varlack and one by Lewis).
"This is nothing new to us," said Lewis, who scored 22 points. "That transition game has always been there between me and Derek."
Varlack, who finished with 24 points, added: "I’ve been playing with Xavier since I was 5 years old, so I always know where he is up the court."
Tommy Ribaudo led Ward Melville with 15 points.
Hills East faces the winner of No. 1 Brentwood/No. 8 Huntington in the semifinals next Saturday, with a chance to take one step closer to win their second straight title.
"The expectations have been very high for us all year long," Basel said. "These guys want to leave their own legacy and be in that conversation with our alumni that have taken us to the final four, the Suffolk County finals and beyond."