Eli Ruiz | Democrat
As a show of respect for the victims of the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy, fans from both Sullivan West and Liberty came dressed in green and white for the boys’ basketball game between the two rivals. Those are the school colors of Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Story by Eli Ruiz
The boys’ basketball game between rivals Sullivan West and Liberty last Friday night was appropriately relegated to a supporting role. The main event was a heartwarming and thoughtful show of respect for the 26 children and educators who lost their lives in the mass shooting at Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School.
In addition to a somber 26-second moment of silence observed before tip-off, the two schools asked all attendees to wear green and white the school colors of Sandy Hook. Normally one of the more hotly-contested rivalries in Section IX with fan sections dominated by Carolina blue for Sullivan West and scarlet red for Liberty, it was a sea of green and white Friday night as fans and administrators alike paid homage to the victims and families affected by the tragedy.
As for the game, Liberty’s affable first-year coach Dave Slater had a goal for his young team: “I want you guys to hold them [Sullivan West] to no more than 25-points at halftime,” said Slater in the locker room just prior to the game. “We have to win ugly,” added Slater.
Unfortunately for Slater and his young Indian team, Sullivan West is loaded with offensive weapons, especially senior sharpshooter Matt Cardona who drained eight three-pointers in leading the Bulldogs to a 59-24 rout.
Cardona wasted no time in showing off his shooting prowess, nailing two consecutive three-pointers to open an early 6-2 Bulldog’s lead, and essentially erasing any doubt about the game’s outcome.
“I felt really good today,” said an elated Cardona, who is now tied for the most three-pointers in Section IX. “The more [3-pointers] I made, the more confident I felt back there. It was unreal.”
“I think we played a pretty good game and put a lot of pressure on the ball,” said Sullivan West coach Bruce Nober. “We shot the ball really well in the first half and did a good job of keeping them [Liberty] on their toes all game long. We had quite a few extra looks there as well,” added Nober.
Indeed, a young Indian squad would have considerable trouble putting up points throughout the contest as a smothering Sullivan-West 3-1 (1-1 OCIAA Division IV) defense forced bad shots and turnovers from Liberty 1-5 (0-2) all game.
With little more than a minute left in the first quarter Brandon Wilson’s put-back of a missed Damian Travis lay-up brought the Indians to within six, 14-8, and for a short time it looked as though Liberty would make a game of it. But a late 9-1 run by Sullivan West, capped by Cardona’s third three-pointer of the quarter, would move Sullivan West out to a 23-9 lead.
“Our kids know going in that we’re not going to score the most points in the section there’s just no sugar-coating it, we’re going to be up and down all season,” said Slater. “My kids know where we stand, and in the one game that we won, we were able to keep Eldred under 50 points. That’s what we need to do to win. We need to hold teams.”
Although Sullivan West appeared to slow down considerably in the second quarter scoring just 12 points the Indians would fare far worse as they could muster just two points in the frame.
“I told them at half-time to keep their composure,” said Slater. “I’ve got a young team and they give up a few turnovers and points and they seem to just get down on themselves and it’s something I try to let them know that they just can’t allow to happen. As a team you just can’t afford to get down, you have to fight on.”
The Indians certainly seemed to come out of the half with plenty of “fight” in them as Wilson would make a statement with a thundering dunk followed by a beautiful assist to Atwoun Ackerley.
“He’s [Brandon Wilson] a very emotional kid and sometimes this gets him into foul trouble or leads him to take some rushed shots,” said Slater. “But he’s a great player, and if he can get himself under control, he’s certainly got the talent.”
An open jumper by Julian Spina would complete a 7-0 run by the Indians, but Cardona, Patrick Pierce (21-points) and the Bulldog defense proved too strong as Sullivan West opened a 28- point third quarter lead.
With a big-time dunk of his own midway through the fourth quarter, Pierce gave the Bulldogs their biggest lead of the game, 56-24.
Having lost nearly the entirety of a team that advanced to the second round of last season’s Section IX playoffs, Liberty and coach Slater may have a long road ahead this season.
“I give my guys small goals before each game,” said Slater. “Things like cutting down on turnovers and creating more open shots and so forth. I’m not focused so much this season on wins and loses, but what I am carefully looking at is improvement. I can guarantee you that we’ll get better for sure.”