By Rob Potter
LOCH SHELDRAKE March 2, 2004 Throughout the second half of Saturdays Region XV Mens Basketball Tournament semifinal game, Sullivan County Community College Coach Chris DePew kept repeating the same phrase to his team.
We gotta believe, we gotta believe, he told his players as they faced the daunting task of coming back from a double-digit deficit against top-seeded and undefeated Suffolk Community College in the contest at SCCCs Paul Gerry Fieldhouse.
After falling behind 49-32 in the first 20 minutes of play, SCCC (25-7) rallied in the second half. Suffolk CC (30-0) grabbed its biggest lead of the game, 59-38, with 17:03 remaining in the contest. But over the next 13 minutes, the Generals gradually chipped away at the Clippers lead.
Keying that comeback was SCCC sophomore guard Darren Sykes, who scored 20 of his team-high 29 points in the second half. With Suffolk holding a 69-55 advantage with 7:12 remaining, Sykes drilled a three-point shot to make it a 69-58 game. About a minute later, Sykes hit another shot from beyond the arc to pull the Generals to within eight points at 69-61.
Over the next 1:40 of action, Sykes hit three of four free throws and scored another basket to cut the Suffolk lead to seven, 73-66. On the Generals next possession, Sykes hit a three-pointer that narrowed the Clippers advantage to 73-69 and elicited deafening cheers from the large partisan crowd.
After Suffolks Marcele Street hit one of two free throws and SCCCs Dante Griggs scored on an offensive rebound, Sykes stepped up to the free-throw line with 3:14 displayed on the scoreboard clock. Sykes swished both free throws to close the Clippers lead to a single point, 74-73. Those free throws again brought a loud cheer from the crowd.
But that was as close as the Generals would get.
Suffolks Aaron Cummings made a pair of foul shots just five seconds after Sykes successful free throws. On the Clippers next possession, Cummings swished a 12-foot jump shot with one second left on the shot clock to give his team a 78-73 lead with 2:20 remaining.
Suffolk sealed its victory by converting 11-of-14 shots from the free-throw line in the final two minutes of the game when the Generals fouled the Clippers several times in an effort to preserve time on the clock.
That was a heartbreaker, DePew said after the emotional contest. We let them get out to a lead they shouldnt have had. We did a great job coming back in the second half and if we would have gotten one more break in the final couple of minutes, we might have been able to win it. But we just didnt get that break.
Sykes noted that the Generals stepped up their play in the second half.
At halftime we talked about that fact that if we had another bad half, our season would be over, he said. So we came out and turned our intensity up a notch in the second half.
In addition to Sykes and his aforementioned 29 points, Griggs and Joe McLeod also reached double figures for the Generals. Griggs finished with 12 points and McLeod netted 11.
Suffolk was led by Maurice Manning, who was recently named the Region XV MVP for the 2003-2004 season. Manning scored a game-high 39 points. Cummings and Street added 13 and 12 points, respectively, for the Clippers.
Both teams played a good game, Suffolk CC Coach Richard Wrase said. It was a good college basketball game.
Wrase also noted that Sykes had a great second half.
Although Sullivans comeback fell just short, DePew was very pleased with the way his team performed.
We were down by 21 in the second half and got it down to just one point, he commented. Im very proud of these guys for the way they came back in this game.
We began practicing back in October and we made it to February 28. These guys worked hard every single day, we hardly ever had a day off.
DePew noted that he would miss the teams five sophomores Keith Bussey, Griggs, Jones, McLeod and Sykes and vowed to help every one of those players continue their basketball careers next season at four-year colleges.
One positive note for the Generals was the fact that Sykes became only the fifth SCCC player in history to score over 1,000 career points. His 29-point effort gave him a two-year total of 1,020.
Its a nice accomplishment, but its second to the teams goals, Sykes said. Our goal was to get out of this building and go to the national championships.
Making the loss even more difficult for DePew to swallow was the way the Suffolk players reacted after the final buzzer. As DePew, Assistant Coaches Troy Nowlin and Kyle Walter and the Generals walked to halfcourt for the traditional post-game handshake, the Clippers dashed to their locker room.
That was the most classless thing I have ever seen, DePew said. They should be embarrassed by their actions.