By Gavin Menu; photography by Michael Heller
Bridget Canavan and Eilis Sheil had already said their formal goodbyes. Trailing by 18 points with less than two minutes to play in the Long Island Class C final at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue on Tuesday, Pierson head coach Kevin Barron pulled his senior leaders to allow for a proper farewell.
But then, in an instant, a 13-2 Pierson run forced Baron to launch his starters back to the scorer’s table to re-enter the game.
Oh, what a season this has been for Lady Whalers basketball.
Ultimately the careers of seven Pierson seniors came to an end on Tuesday, with Nassau County champion Friends Academy holding on for a 54-44 victory and its second-straight Long Island title.
The Quakers (17-2) advanced and will play a New York State Southeast Regional final on Saturday in New Rochelle with a berth in the state final four on the line.
Pierson’s season ended with an overall record of 13-8, which included the program’s first Suffolk County championship in 14 years, and its first league title since 1992.
“I think we played our hearts out,” May Evjen, another senior, said on Tuesday. “This loss doesn’t feel like a loss to me, because we’ve accomplished so much.”
The Lady Whalers played Friends nearly even through two quarters but failed to keep up in the second half as the Quakers and their dominant front line put the game seemingly out of reach with an 18-6 third quarter.
Lindsay O’Sullivan, a 5’11 sophomore with a world of talent, led Friends with a game-high 23 points with 10 rebounds and four blocks. Her mate in the frontcourt, 5’11 senior Rose Mangiarotti, finished with 13 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks.
“The height difference hurt us,” Barron said. “They were able to get the ball down low in the post for a lot of the game and we couldn’t get things flowing offensively in the second half.”
Also playing their final basketball game as Lady Whalers were Kasey Gilbride, who led the team with 12 points, and Evjen, who finished with nine. Canavan and Sheil finished with six and five points, respectively.
Joining the four senior starters at graduation this spring will be Sol Varela, Sydney Mitchell and Ashley Nill, all of who played rolls in the frenzied final comeback attempt.
“I ‘ve coached a lot of them since eighth grade and I’ll miss them like crazy,” Barron said on Tuesday. “They’ve re-built this program.”
The Lady Whalers attacked the Quakers frontline early, feeding sophomore center Erica Selyukova in the post in an attempt to draw fouls. The strategy worked early, and Pierson trailed by just two points going into halftime.
But Selyukova, who will return along with freshman Isabel Peters to lead next year’s team, was held scoreless in the second half while Friends was methodical in its attack down low.
Thriving off the deft passing of senior point guard Kristina Kim, O’Sullivan and Mangiarotti combined for 12 points during the decisive third quarter.
“I give them a lot of credit, they’re a real tough team,” Friends coach Ryan Schneider said about Pierson. “We knew we had our work cut out for us.”
The game seemed out of reach when Valera entered the game with less than two minutes to play. She quickly hit a jumper, which was followed by a basket from Nill, which was followed by a three-point play by Gilbride. A layup by Evjen seconds later cut what had been a huge lead to single digits at 53-44.
Sheil and Canavan re-entered the game with 33.9 seconds left, but Pierson was unable to score again. Still, the loss did not seem to devastate Pierson’s players or their head coach.
“I’m so proud right now,” said Evjen, who had an opportunity to graduate early but decided to return for the second semester so she could finish out the basketball season. “And honestly I’m so glad I did. I love this team to death, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Summing up the emotions of her final day in a Lady Whalers uniform, Evjen added one last sentiment.
“I’m crying tears of joy right now.”