by Tom Pedulla
The pizza was great, the lights were bright at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, and rarely have fans of the Sleepy Hollow boys’ basketball team felt better about the Horsemen than they did Wednesday, January 15.
No, Sleepy Hollow did not win, staging a dramatic comeback that fell agonizingly short against Rye in a 49-43 loss to a powerhouse that has swept 10 of its first 11 games.
But to play at the home of the National Basketball Association’s Brooklyn Nets was more about the experience than the game – and the Horsemen had one heck of a time.
“It was just so much fun to be out there. I didn’t realize it until I actually got to play in the game, but it was 10 times better than anything I could expect,” said junior point guard Ben Good. “To be out there with my team, it was amazing.”
Good struggled to find the right words to convey his emotions. It was unlike anything he experienced before or may ever enjoy again.
“It’s a completely different feeling. I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “You’re on an NBA court where superstars play, and you’ve just got a feeling inside of you and it’s a great feeling.”
Excitement had been building for three weeks, ever since officials at Barclay’s Center informed Rye coach John Aguilar that a date had become available. Aguilar and Chris Starace, head coach at Sleepy Hollow and a former assistant to Aguilar, initially thought they would not have enough time to pull everything together. Then they realized the opportunity was too good to miss.
“We started at noon that day trying to figure it out. We got both athletic directors involved and they were fantastic,” Starace said. “By 3 p.m. that day, we had pretty much finalized everything. And then the whirlwind started.”
The two schools sold almost 200 tickets between them. Transportation was arranged, with Sleepy Hollow being accompanied by its cheerleaders and a small but spirited student section that danced and sang to music played by Diz Di Fiore, a disc jockey who works in Westchester.
“When I first heard about it, I was going crazy,” said Pat Smith, a senior captain for Sleepy Hollow. “It’s just awesome playing in an arena as a high school basketball player where NBA players get to play. It’s a cool atmosphere.”
The fun started with a pre-game meal at famous Patsy’s Pizzeria, a short walk from the arena. Salads were passed around – and a lot of pizza. Not a bad way to build team chemistry.
“It brings our team together and shows we really care about each other,” said Josh Kearse, a senior forward. “To be able to bond with the guys over dinner and play the game, it means a lot.” The site, incidentally, took on added meaning for Kearse because he was born in Brooklyn.
Coaches made sure the game was memorable for every member of each team. They agreed beforehand that reserves would play the first three minutes of the second quarter, a move that did not significantly impact the score.
“Obviously, winning is important, but it’s really all about these guys,” Starace said. “I would not want to be here as a player and have to sit the whole game. They come to practice and work their butts off. They deserve this as much as anybody.”
Early turnovers contributed to Sleepy Hollow’s 14-10 deficit after the opening quarter. Rye’s rebounding superiority also began to show, and the Garnets rattled off 11 of the final 13 points in the second quarter to build a 25-14 margin by halftime.
It appeared a rout might be on, but the Horsemen were too spirited to allow that to happen. If there was a loose ball, their bodies were flying everywhere to retrieve it. That scrappiness, combined with an offensive spark provided by junior Kishaun Cole, allowed Sleepy Hollow to storm back from a 43-29 deficit early in the fourth quarter.
Cole’s two free throws, followed by his driving score, sliced the margin to 43-33 and the Horsemen kept coming. The distant NBA three-point arc did not faze Cole at all when he buried a three-pointer from the right side to pull his team within 46-41 with 54.4 seconds to play. The Horsemen crept still closer when Kearse coolly sank two foul shots to make it 46-43 with 19.9 seconds to go.
Although they would fall short, there was nothing about this night that felt negative for coaches and players straining to turn around what has been a losing program.
“For a team that is supposed to be number one in the section, we took them down to the wire,” said Cole, who finished with a team-high 19 points.
Said Starace, “I was extremely proud of them. It was a great day. They played extremely hard. There were a lot of positives. We’re going to take the positives out of it and go to practice and try to get better.”
Whatever happens after this, Sleepy Hollow made memories that will last a lifetime.