Dion Ogunade has an analogy for defending the perimeter while Hall Elisias lurks in the paint.
“It’s like you’re going bungee jumping and you see a safety net above the floor,” Ogunade said. “You feel more comfortable playing.”
With a disciplined and springy 6-7 center, a team can be more aggressive defensively. No. 14 Valley Stream South did just that in a critical second-half stretch to defeat visiting No. 19 Floral Park, 61-54, Thursday night in a Nassau Class A out-bracket game.
Floral Park (9-11) had battled out of an early 15-1 hole and took a 37-32 lead on Brian Fox’s layup with 3:26 left in the third quarter. The Knights had applied consistent full-court pressure, turning over Valley Stream South (12-8) and scoring efficiently in transition. It was the same recipe that fueled Floral Park’s 65-36 rout of the Falcons on Dec. 18 in Nassau A-III.
But then Elisias, a senior in his fourth year on varsity and a member of last year’s Long Island champion, reminded his teammates that he had their backs.
“I’m the anchor,” said Elisias, who had 13 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks. “If their man beats them, then I’m here. I’m always the one talking, trying to get my guys in good position.”
The Falcons clamped down defensively in the halfcourt. They knew they could gamble with Elisias, who averages about seven blocks per game, under the hoop. Because Floral Park had trouble scoring, it could not set up its pressure. Valley Stream South went on a backbreaking 23-2 run over the next nine minutes to take a 55-39 lead with about two minutes left.
“You can be more aggressive,” coach Matt Johnsen said. “You can go for more steals because if you get beat, they’re going to run into a 6-7 monster at the rim. That’s our philosophy.”
During that spurt, Jaremi Hernandez scored eight of his team-high 15 points, Ogunade scored seven of his 13 and Elisias had six points, including an emphatic tip-slam that gave Valley Stream South a 41-37 lead entering the fourth.
Despite trailing by 16 points with two minutes left, Floral Park did not fall without injecting the home crowd with angst. The Knights nailed five three-pointers in a 90-second stretch to cut the gap to 60-54 with 27.2 seconds remaining.
Hernandez missed two foul shots with 25.7 seconds to play, but Jack Dixon’s step-back three-pointer rimmed out and T.J. Cluess’ putback did not fall with 14 seconds left.
“I’m proud of my guys,” Floral Park coach Sean Boyle said, “because two different times we got down and we just kept trying to make something happen and we were really close to making it a one-possession game.”
Floral Park, which lost to Valley Stream South in the county final last year, will return several key players. During one critical stretch, the Knights had junior Jack Dixon (12 points) on the floor with sophomores Fox (18 points), Frank Phelan and Matt Jounakos. Cluess (11 points) was on the bench with foul trouble, and fellow junior Jose Barcia missed the game because of an ankle injury.
“The future’s bright for our guys,” Boyle said. “I think that the core guys that we have coming back, I think that this will only be fuel in the tank to push them to be better and put themselves in a position where they don’t need to play an out-bracket game.”
The Falcons will continue their county title defense when they visit No. 3 Valley Stream North Saturday at 2 p.m. Valley Stream North swept the season series in Nassau A-III, 62-61 and 72-51. But with a defense that can gamble and a shot-blocker protecting the rim, the Falcons will enter confident they can pull off an upset.
“That’s our ace in the hole, having [Elisias] to protect the rim,” Johnsen said. “Nobody protects the rim like him.”