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Westies remain perfect at home as strong finish repels recharged Raiders

By RICHARD A. ROSS

LAKE HUNTINGTON, NY - “Our House!” growled the rabid Bulldog crowd as Dan Figueroa’s tie-breaking three swished through the rim to give Sullivan West a 52-49 lead with 1:32 left in a topsy turvy fourth quarter against league rival James I. O’Neill on January 8.

In a key execution of stop and go, Sullivan West marshaled strong defense down the stretch to fight back from a five-point, fourth-quarter deficit and propel itself to victory with key buckets at critical moments from R.J. Rosa, Brad Reimer and Figueroa. Despite O’Neill’s valiant second-half resurgence, the Bulldogs staved off what could have been their first home loss of the season as they prevailed 54-49.

O’Neill had whittled away Sullivan West’s lead to three at the end of the third quarter and then tied the game with a three-pointer by Ryan Kastner. The game would be tied up three more times before all was said and done and before the Bulldogs’ late heroics, strongly encouraged by the loud home crowd, resulted in the win. Sullivan West improved to 6-1 (2-0 OCIAA) as they held off the team that swept them in the regular season in ’08 by scores of 66-54 and 69-53.

The Bulldogs remain perfect at home this season with a 4-0 record. Their only loss came on the road to Walton.

With the win, the Bulldogs, who went 1-7 in their division a year ago, are halfway toward winning the requisite four league games that will propel them back to the postseason after last year’s hiatus.

“We won because we played good defense,” said coach Cliff Kelly. “I think we’re one of the better teams defensively.” Using a combination of a two-three zone and high pressure man-to-man defense with strong rotating help was key in holding O’Neill’s potentially fiery shooters at bay. Forcing 14 turnovers over the course of the night was an integral part of that defensive effort. Dan Figueroa had four steals, including a couple at critical junctures.

His clutch play was akin to his remarkable football performances this past fall. In both sports, Figueroa’s play has been vital from both an offensive and defensive standpoint. Needless to say, the same holds true for Rei-mer, whose outstanding football play has now given way to excellence on the hardwood. Reimer led all scorers with 21 points. His athleticism, self-confidence and indomitable will are central in the Bulldogs’ resurgence.

Those attributes are contagious and the Bulldogs are clearly beginning to feel their oats. With league wins over Liberty and O’Neill, Sullivan West looks forward to taking on nemesis Burke. Snow and ice postponed this week’s match up. As Sullivan West was beating O’Neill, Burke was downing Liberty in Goshen.

O’Neill showed its strong attributes early on with its pressure defense, its ability to fast break and its strong rebounding. But after getting out to a quick 6-2 first-quarter lead, the Raiders were hampered by early foul trouble from big man Chris Outing and eventual team-leading scorer Connor Broesler. In addition, Kelly urged his players to slow O’Neill’s break down by getting back and pressuring the ball.

By night’s end, Sullivan West had accrued 19 free-throw attempts, of which they made 13. By comparison, O’Neill had only three shots from the stripe, all of which they made. That disparity was not lost on Raider coach Debbi Crowe, who said there should have been more balance of fouls called, given the physical play on both sides. That said, Crowe credited Sullivan West’s fine play and the shooting of the aforementioned threesome as she remained positive about her team despite its slippage to 4-4 (1-2 OCIAA).

Getting a pair of key three-pointers from Justin Armstrong early on would be key for the Westies, as the feisty guard played extremely well in every aspect of the game. Armstrong had six assists to go along with eight points. “He’s come a long way since last year,” Kelly would say in his post-game commentary. Armstrong’s defense and his care in taking care of the ball at the point were crucial to the Bulldogs’ winning effort.

So how close was this game?

For the better part of three quarters, Sullivan West held the lead that burgeoned at one point to eleven during the second quarter. The Bulldogs led 16-10 at the end of the first quarter and 27-20 at the half. But despite foul trouble, O’Neill kept the game close enough so that its key runs could bring them right back into contention. As the third quarter wound down, O’Neill whittled the lead down to two. Reimer was fouled on a three pointer at the buzzer. He hit one of three to give Sullivan West a 36-33 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

A three by Ryan Kastner tied the game at 36-all just a few seconds in, and for the next seven-and-a-half minutes the game was up for grabs as the lead see-sawed. The game was tied four times.

Reimer wrested the lead back with a pair of free throws to make it 38-36, but Broesler tied it back up at 38-all. He followed that with a three at 5:30. Figueroa answered back with a bucket to cut the deficit to one at 41-40. Another bucket by Broesler and one by John Molin put the Raiders up by five again with 3:38 to play, but the feisty Dawgs refused to be subjugated.

After a scoreless third quarter, Rosa found his stroke with a three pointer to cut the deficit to two at 47-45. Needing a stop, Sullivan West defenders denied Molin a good look on a three. Coming down the court, though, the Westies missed a pair of shot attempts and O’Neill headed back up the floor, looking to increase the lead.

Figueroa got a key steal from Kastner and Reimer raced through the lane to tie it at 47-all with 3:01 remaining.

Broesler took the ball at the top of the key and drove, drawing the foul. He hit both and O’Neill took a 49-47 lead with 2:45 to go. Rosa’s three came up short. Molin missed and Reimer raced through the lane to tie it again at 49-all. Following a Broesler miss, Figueroa canned that game-changing three and Sullivan West never looked back. With time waning, O’Neill was forced to foul as Outing turned it over late. Free throws by Armstrong and Rei-mer iced the win.

Close showdowns, such as this one, are apt to be typical in the hotly-contested division as Sullivan West, Burke, Liberty, O’Neill and Fallsburg go at each other over the course of the next two months.

Even as his team trailed by five, Kelly felt confident. “They didn’t get good looks,” he said, but added that Broesler was tough to manage. “He’s left-handed and hard to match up with.” Kelly said that the layoff the day before and the recent spate of cancellations hurt both teams. “We got tired toward the end and that’s why I called the time outs.”

Crowe was disappointed with the loss but remained upbeat. O’Neill has beaten Liberty and looks to even its league record as it travels to Fallsburg on January 9. After playing Burke tough for the first half, the Raiders melted on their way to an 81-47 thrashing. “We just didn’t play well,” she said, adding that her team hopes to reverse that outcome when they get the Eagles on their own court down in Highland Falls. O’Neill faces a pair of daunting challenges next week as they face Class A Goshen and Class AA Minisink Valley. The Raiders lost to Goshen in their season opener 61-43.

Sullivan West traveled to Monticello on January 14 before heading to Burke on January 16.

Rosa added 11 points for Sullivan West. The Bulldogs had five threes on the night. They attempted 14. O’Neill had three treys with two of them coming from Molin, who scored eight as did Cedric Cochran. O’Neill attempted eight three pointers on the night. Sullivan West turned the ball over nine times to O’Neill’s 14.

Visit riverreportersports.com for an album of game photos.

TRR photo by Richard A. Ross
Sullivan West’s Dan Figueroa cans a go-ahead three pointer with 1:39 remaining to help propel the Bulldogs to an exciting 54-49 Division IV win over visiting James I. O’Neill. Sullivan West is 4-0 on its home court this season. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Richard A. Ross
Sullivan West’s Justin Armstrong, left, fires in the first of a pair of three pointers. Armstrong registered six assists, handled the ball well at the point and played fine defense in one the best games of his career. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Richard A. Ross
Brad Reimer, left, scores two of his game-high 21 points as O’Neill’s John Molin rises up to defend. (Click for larger version)