Xavier Lewis, Sam Gerstman help Half Hollow Hills East rally for OT win over Northport
They took their place in the paint, near the basket they kept filling in overtime, and posed for one last photo op. They were wearing joy on their faces and white T-shirts with "SUFFOLK COUNTY BASKETBALL CHAMPIONS" emblazoned across the front.
The fourth-seeded Thunderbirds from Half Hollow Hills East certainly earned their happiness and their new clothes.
After rallying from 13 down in the fourth to beat No. 1 Brentwood in the AA semifinals, they rallied from 11 down late in the first half against No. 2 Northport in the final and forced the extra session.
Hills East then scored the last eight points of OT and walked away with a 56-50 win Saturday at Smithtown East for its first county crown since 2018.
"These guys just don’t quit," coach Peter Basel said. "They got down early in the game. These guys are just so determined. We’ve been in these situations before. I’m going to tell you, it’s helped us."
Next up for the 18-6 Thunderbirds is 24-0 Kings Park from Class A. They play Monday at 7 p.m. at Longwood in Suffolk’s large school vs. small school final. Then comes the Long Island AA championship game/regional final next Saturday at Hofstra.
"Practice, workouts, whatever it was, I knew we could do this from the start," senior guard Xavier Lewis said after scoring a game-high 23. "This was what we were supposed to do and this is what we’re going to continue to keep on doing — winning."
After Nick Watts scored the last two of his seven points in overtime and made it 50-48 Tigers, Lewis hit a short shot off the glass to tie it. Northport turned it over, and Sam Gerstman buried a jumper from the right side for a 52-50 Thunderbirds lead with about 36 seconds left.
Gerstman also converted both sides of a one-and-one for a four-point edge with 7.4 seconds remaining.
"I knew I had to contribute to my team because Derek [Varlack] and Xavier, we need someone else to score and step up when they’re not hitting their shots at times," said Gerstman, a senior guard who scored all six of his points in overtime.
Watts, who finished with 17 points, nearly hit the winning shot on a three-point attempt as time expired in regulation, but it spun out.
"We were about a centimeter away from winning this game," Tigers coach Andrew D’Eloia said. "But that’s basketball."
Northport (20-3) got four threes from Brendan Carr in building a 30-19 lead late in the first half. But Hills East chipped away and finally tied it at 41 on a Varlack drive in the fourth.
Watts nailed two free throws for the lead with 47.2 seconds remaining in regulation. But Lewis made a floater with about 20 seconds left — 43-43.
On to OT.
"Hills East played just a little bit better than we did today," D’Eloia said. "What a phenomenal high school basketball game."