Senior point guard Jerome Russell scored a career-high 31 points to lead the East Hampton boys basketball team to a 61-52 victory over North Fork rival Greenport on Friday night, as the Bonackers officially made last season’s run to the New York State Final Four a thing of the past.
Russell and his fellow senior co-captain Hayden Ward said they were nervous prior to tipping off the new season on Friday, knowing that last year’s run to the state final, which included Suffolk County and Long Island titles, would be a tough act to follow.
“It takes a lot of pressure off our shoulders, just coming out here and getting the first W of the season,” Russell said.
“It definitely takes the pressure off,” Ward agreed.
Last season’s miraculous run through the postseason ended one win short of a state title after the senior duo of Mikey Russell and Marcus Edwards led the Bonackers upstate for the first time in 19 years.
The program might have graduated two of its all-time brightest stars, but in Ward and Jerome Russell, the next two have announced their arrival in style.
“Me and Hayden just tried to get the whole team involved in the game,” Russell said. “Getting this win really feels great.”
The game was delayed in getting started after a referee collapsed in the second quarter of the junior varsity game after suffering an apparent heart attack. Athletic trainer Randy Cherill and a team of paramedics used the school’s automated external defibrillator, or AED, device, to revive the man. The JV game was delayed for about 45 minutes and the referee was alert as he left the court before being taken to Southampton Hospital.
“His heart stopped and he turned blue,” Cherill said at the end of the night, adding on Monday that she had heard the man was doing better. “It was very scary.”
By the time the varsity game began, East Hampton’s gym was packed with eager fans ready for a new season. Ward scored the first points of the game on a thunderous one-handed dunk, and proceeded to dominate the paint all night, notching a double-double with 18 points and 14 rebounds.
Russell put the team on his shoulders after East Hampton fell behind, 30-25, early in the second half. He scored 10 straight points to put the Bonackers back in the lead, and made 5 of his 7 three-point tries in the second half.
“My teammates count on me, so I wanted to come through for them,” Russell said. “Plus, I have Hayden out there backing me up.”
Russell outshined the Porters’ sensational senior guard Ryan Creighton, who on Friday became Greenport’s all-time leading scorer, eclipsing the record held by his head coach, Al Edwards, since 1972.
Creighton scored just 14 points in the game but now has 2,120 points for his career, good for fifth place on New York’s all-time scoring list.
“I’m just dropping down that list, aren’t I,” said Edwards, who said Creighton is a “perfect gentleman” who always puts the interests of his team first. “It’s not all about him. He’s a really great teammate.”
It was a bittersweet night for Creighton, who entered his senior season with lofty personal goals of winning a Class D state title, as well as claiming the Long Island and state career scoring marks. Against East Hampton, he shot just 4-for-21 from the field and 3-for-10 from the foul line, never finding the offensive rhythm that has made him a star.
“I think I was too intense in that it was our first game of the year,” said Creighton, who is now just 493 points shy of Kenny Wood’s Long Island scoring record set in East Hampton in 1989, and 635 points short of the state mark held by Sebastian Telfair since 2004.
The Porters played a total of 23 games before losing in the state semifinal last season, and if they do the same this year, Creighton would need to average about 29 points per game to set the state mark, and slightly more than 22 points per game to catch Wood.
Russell and Ward will not be chasing records in East Hampton, but if they continue to play as they did on Friday, the shadow cast by last year’s stars will fade much more quickly.
“We’re a different team this year,” Ward said. “Everyone thought it was going to be a test if we can bring our team to another winning season and go back where we went last year.”
Sam Hyman, who saw very little action as a junior last season, proved on Friday that he will be an integral part of East Hampton’s success this year, especially on the defense. Hyman was given the unenviable task of guarding Creighton on Friday night, and every shot the Porters star took was challenged, a testament to both Hyman and senior forward Jarred Bowe’s approach to putting defense first.
“I’m not going to take the ball away from Jerome and Hayden, that much is sure,” Hyman joked after the game. “It’s just a really good feeling to play an important role in a big win.”
Friday night’s Greenport game was the first in a sort of murderous row for the Bonackers, who were scheduled to host three more county champions in Port Jefferson (Class C), Center Moriches (Class B) and Half Hollow Hills West (Class A) in non-league contests, all in December.
The Port Jefferson game was played last night, December 9, after this edition went to press, and the Bonackers will open the League VI season on Friday at Elwood / John Glenn, which is expected to offer stiff competition in East Hampton’s chase for a league title.