By Ted Waddell
STONE RIDGE March 9, 2004 It was a long bus ride home Thursday night for the Monticello Panthers.
In that evenings Section IX Class A semifinal boys basketball game, it was a match-up between a passel of panthers, as the third-seeded Monticello Panthers squared off against the second-seeded Panthers of Wallkill at Ulster County Community College in Stone Ridge.
The hot-footed game seesawed back and forth.
But after a very action-packed final minute, the Wallkill Panthers recorded a 64-63 victory.
Wallkill jumped out to a 15-8 lead in the first period, only to watch Monticello (10-12) battle back 19-11 in the second quarter. Monticello outscored Wallkill 19-11 in those eight minutes of action to take a whisker thin one-point (27-26) advantage at halftime.
Wallkill (14-2) came charging back in the third period to outshoot Monti by six (20-14).
In the wild and wooly final quarter, Monticello was up by five (63-58) with 34 seconds left on the game clock.
Then things got really interesting, really fast.
At the 19-second mark, Wallkills Jared Pillitteri narrowed Montis lead to two (63-61) with a critical three-pointer.
Monticellos Brad Cooper was fouled a couple of ticks of the clock later. Standing up the free-throw line facing a one-and-one situation, he missed the first shot and Wallkills Jordan Dirago snatched the rebound.
With eight seconds remaining, Wallkill Coach John McCormick sent in his squad of top three-point shooters. Their mission: whoever gets open first, sink a three to win the game.
Rob Gomez came off the bench, and point guard Brian B.J. Masopust fed him a pass. A fraction of a second later, it was mission accomplished for Gomez as he nailed what would become the game-winning shot from beyond the 19 9 arc.
At :06, the ball was downcourt in Monticellos territory.
Cooper went up to the bucket from the right side surrounded by a trio of Wallkill players: Masopust, Brandon Rola and Jackson Wallace.
Then Cooper went down, hemmed in by the best defense players Wallkill could muster for the final shot of the contest.
The shot missed and suddenly it was all over as Wallkill pulled a victory out of the slavering jaws of defeat.
With the win, Wallkill advanced to Sundays Class A championship game at West Point. According to McCormick, it was the first time theyve made it since 1992, when the Panthers won the title and advanced to the eastern regionals.
If someone told me that my shooter Jared [Pillitteri] would be four for twenty-some, Id say we were going to have a rough time winning, McCormick said. He had a rough night but when we needed him, he put the ball in the hole.
But everybody else picked up, he added. I had 10 guys in the game and although it was a sloppy game, everybody contributed to the win.
Youve got to give credit to [Monticello Coach] Dick ONeill, McCormick continued. Hes one of the best coaches in the area. He had them playing great ball, and kept us from doing a lot of what we wanted to do.
After the game, a downcast T.J. Walker sat on the bench with his Monticello teammates in a deserted gymnasium.
It was a tight game, he said. We lost and weve got to play better defense and grab more rebounds.
All of our players have to play at their fullest potential, and we didnt do that tonight, added the 17-year- old junior.
His take on the season that just came to a screeching halt?
It was good, he said. Next year, were coming back strong.
This is ONeills 35th year coaching Monti boys varsity hoops.
Reflecting on the season passed, he said, It was a huge success, Im as pleased as I can be. I told the kids I love coaching them, and we got beat on two big shots and thats the way it is.
We gave it our best effort, he added. Sometimes it works good, sometimes it works bad.
Looking ahead to the 2004-05 season, ONeill said hes expecting 10 out of a bakers dozen of this years players to suit up next year.
Looking back at their heartbreaking loss to Wallkill, he said, I thought we played the hell out of the game tonight. We deserved to win, but we just didnt.
Monticello placed a couple of hoopsters into the scorebook with double digits. Walker had a game-high 25 points and Cooper netted 19.
For Wallkill, Pillitteri scored 24 points, Dirago recorded 18 and Wallace added 11.
Each team shot 68 percent from the free-throw line. Monticello was 15-of-22 and Wallkill was 13-of-19.
Notes: Among those cheering on the local Panthers up in the stands Thursday night were a couple of Monti students in painted faces.
Eighteen-year-old senior Adam Levine and 11th grader Danny Lorino, 16, showed up with their mugs decorated in Monticello Central Schools yin and yang colors of blue and white, taking a page out of the NFL bleachers scene.
In Sundays Class A final, Cornwall defeated Wallkill, 65-50.