In a boys basketball season where a sense of discipline has been paramount, Half Hollow Hills East almost lost control of Saturday's playoff game at a most important time.
The host Thunderbirds looked brilliant out of the gate in their Suffolk Conference II semifinal against Bellport. The defense piled up deflections and the lead ballooned to 14 points less than six minutes into the game. Almost as quickly though, the Clippers staged a comeback to get with in one point of Hills East midway through the second quarter.
The Thunderbirds however, never gave that lead up. They would go back up by double-digits only to see it again whittle to one before a strong fourth quarter helped them to a 61-52 victory.
"We got ahead of ourselves: we thought we had it," said Leisaan Hibbert, who finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and five steals. "We got comfortable and let them get momentum. But the thing is we know how good a team we can be if we play our game. So even when it was close we didn’t panic."
"The key for us was not to lose our composure in that situation," said Xavier Lewis, who had nine points and four assists for Hills East. "We got back to doing what we do: getting our hands into the passing lanes and getting deflections and steals."
Hills East (9-0) will host Sunday’s noon championship game against Smithtown West, which beat Deer Park on Saturday.
Louis Mathurin added 14 points and Danny Walls had nine rebounds for Hills East. Samir Bell had 24 points for Bellport (7-2), but the Thunderbirds did a nice defensive job on Javin Riddick in limiting him to seven points.
Mathurin had five points and Hibbert and Lewis four apiece as Hills East raced to an 18-4 lead. Bell had nine points and capped a 19-4 burst with a driving layup to cut the margin to 24-23 with 3:59 left in the first half. Hibbert scored on a drive and a putback on the Thunderbirds next two possessions.
On the Clippers' first possession of the fourth quarter, they got their shot to draw even. Down 43-30, Bell finished a fast break with a layup and drew a foul from Hibbert. But he didn’t make the free throw and Hills East scored on five of its next six possessions to pull out to a 54-43 lead when Hibbert made one of two free throws with 3:12 to play.
"We knew we had the pieces for this to be a real good season," Hills East coach Peter Basel said. "A big key for us was keeping our heads right and doing the right thing. They knew it could be a good season, so they really did a fantastic job of avoiding (COVID-19) and we were fortunate not to lose a season where other teams did. Sunday’s game will be their reward for that."