And…a bonus. My web-only game story on how Albertus proved what it means to be Rockland-tough.
BARDONIA — The tension built and built right up through tip off. Albertus Magnus’ odd-shaped gym — with its home and away benches perpendicular in a corner and its only entrance across the court from the stands — seem to have a buzz befitting a playoff game.
For Panas, it was exactly that. For Albertus, too, only don’t blame the fourth-seeded Falcons if this just felt like another Friday night in Rockland County. Not only did they withstand an early barrage from No. 13 Panas’ Vaughn Dweck, they showed their cool throughout Friday’s 70-66 victory in the Class A opening round game.
Dweck, a senior, finished with 32 points, but his first quarter was something to behold. He hit five 3-pointers and scored 19 points in the period. Still, two jumpers by senior Jack Sullivan just before halftime pushed Albertus in front, 39-38, at the half.
“It’s a tribute to the tough schedule that we play, all Rockland teams,” Sullivan said. “I don’t want to say our teammates are bad. Sometimes, kids open up the game shooting the ball well but we’re able to make adjustments. We never fold. We’re always here, playing as hard as we can. We play good team defense and change things up as we go along.”
During Dweck’s sizzling start, Falcons coach Pat McFadden never called timeout, trusting his team to persevere and it did. Sullivan dropped 26 points, including 19 in the first half as his team erased the double-digit deficit.
“I was afraid of what I might do if I called timeout,” McFadden said jokingly. “I saw the kid (Dweck) play. He had a terrific first quarter. I was disappointed with where he got his catches. I think, in the second half, we made his catches tougher, which might’ve limited what he could do. We had to adjust at halftime. To the kids credit, that’s what they did.
“I think this is a battle-tested group. We’ve been in a lot of tight ballgames and we’ve managed to pull them out. We bent a lot, but we didn’t break. I think our defense in the second half was key.”
Sullivan, a UMass-Lowell-bound guard showed he was equally adept as a facilitator, punishing double teams by finding teammates as they cut open to the basket. Senior Tom McConnell was the main beneficiary. He finished with 19 points.
Fellow senior Matt Dale added 10, including 4 for 4 at the foul line in the final minute, two of which came off a key offensive rebound. The undersized forward rebounded a missed free throw by McConnell, who made the first but missed the second shortly after Panas’ Tim McCauley (16 points) hit a 3-pointer to cut it to one, 64-63, with 38.7 to play.
Dale was immediately fouled and hit both free throws to give the Falcons a 67-63 cushion.
“He might be 6-10 by the end of the night,” McFadden said. “He just gets after the ball. He has the heart of a warrior. He gets after the ball like crazy.”
The missed rebound was one of several small but consequential plays that made the difference for a Panas team accustomed to agonizing defeats. The Panthers (12-7) lost their seven games by a combined 19 points. This matched their loss at Poughkeepsie for their worst loss of the season (four points).
“It’s a play or two,” Panas coach Shawn Sullivan said. “I can think in my head of five or six other plays that we messed up offensively or defensively. And that’s the difference.”
“It stings right now, but I told them, I haven’t been prouder of a team in my 17 years,” Sullivan said. “We were 3-5 and left for dead going into Peekskill. We won 11 out of 13. This was the first team that I’ve had in five or six years where we really came together.”
Albertus (15-4), the two-time defending Class B champ, will host its first Class A quarterfinal at 7 Tuesday night against stalwart Peekskill, which split with Panas during the regular season.
“A lot of people counted us out when we moved to ‘A,’ but I knew we were going to be right in the thick of things,” Jack Sullivan said. “There’s no easy games when you get to the playoffs. Every game is a tough challenge. It’s only going to get harder as you go along, so we’re looking forward to playing Peekskill on Tuesday.”