In 1997, the Scarsdale boys basketball team beat Mount Vernon in the Section 1 Class A semifinals at the Westchester County Center. Mount Vernon then went on a run of 26 straight trips to the Section 1 finals, a streak that ended on Friday, March 3, as the Raiders topped the Knights 64-58 in the Section 1 Class AA semis.
“I've been dreaming about this since I was a kid,” junior A.J. Booth said. “I'm pretty sure the rest of the team has, too, and beating Mount Vernon of all teams. We have been talking to previous alumni like Max Bosco, kids from teams prior, and they were all giving us support. We came into it we were like, ‘We know we can win this game. We know we can win this game. We beat them before, we could do it again.’ We have the personnel, we have the talent and we came through and it means the world to me the whole team. It's life-changing. I'm going to remember this forever.”
With the victory, Scarsdale advances to the Section 1 finals for the first time since 1997, which was also the last time the Raiders beat Mount Vernon more than once in a season. In 1997 the Raiders swept the three games and this year the two teams split in the regular season with Scarsdale winning 60-59 on a buzzer-beater by junior Carlos Rodriguez on the road — the first Section 1 loss for Mount Vernon in three years — and Mount Vernon won 51-42 at Scarsdale with Rodriguez and senior Asher Krohn out of the lineup for Scarsdale.
Scarsdale will play North Rockland, which upset Clarkstown South 49-47 in the other semifinal, after having lost twice to South during the regular season. The Raiders had been on a redemption road tournament as they had split with Mamaroneck and Mount Vernon in the regular season and beat them both in playoffs. Scarsdale had suffered one of its worst defeats to South (64-39) and did not face North Rockland in the regular season.
The Raiders certainly don’t care who they play as they seek their fourth gold ball — stopping Mount Vernon from pursuing No. 37 — having won in Class AA 1979 and Class A 1988 and 1992, all under then-coach Jack Kaminer in an era of no shot clock.
“It was a phenomenal week of practice,” Coach Joe Amelio said. “So many guys who haven’t been in the rotation just have been stepping up and we essentially said, the coaching staff included, to the kids that when it came down to it, they weren't going to allow it to be easy for Asher and Carlos today. So in order to win games like that we need other guys to lift us, step up. Guys made big shots. A.J. is laboring right now, makes a big three. [Daniel] Hoey is phenomenal down the stretch making layups, big free throws. Down the stretch we need to go to our main guys, but during the game, we’ve got to be able to trust each other and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing.”
The Raiders were 11-9 in the regular season and took some tough losses down the stretch, even after their momentous first win over Mount Vernon. Amelio said the initial win against Mount Vernon took away the “fear factor” for his team.
“I mean everyone sees Mount Vernon on the chest and just knows not only are they going to fight for 32 minutes, but they have the accolades that come with it,” Amelio said. “And kudos to them. They play hard. It's hard to coach when you win that much to get kids to keep buying in and they do a fantastic job over at Mount Vernon and our kids just coming in knew it would take 32 minutes, exactly that 32 minutes, to win the game. And going back to the fear factor, I don't think we fear any team when we're playing at a high level. I think we're confident we can we can beat anybody.”
The playoffs have been different in wins over Arlington, Mamaroneck and Mount Vernon. Amelio said it all started with a players-only team meeting in which Krohn took the lead and gave a one-for-all, all-for-one message that focused on not looking at the state sheet — only the effort and the final score produced by the team mattered.
“I think it took him saying that to the whole group to let them know how unselfish and selfless that was,” Amelio said. “And I think everyone's just bought in since. I firmly believe that since the playoffs started everyone just wants to win games regardless of who actually leads the scoring column.”
Sophomore Jake Sussberg likes the shift in tone. “These past three games we’ve played as more of a team and when people make mistakes we pick them up instead of yelling,” he said. “Earlier in the season that had been happening. Picking each other up has really changed our game — and being unselfish.”
While beating Mount Vernon in the regular season was a key victory for Scarsdale and set the tone for the postseason rubber game, ending Mount Vernon’s run was one of the biggest moments in team history since 1997.
“We were talking about before then that nobody has lost in the semis to them at the county center in a long time,” senior sixth-man Henry Rifkin said. “Beating them for the second time this season, that’s unheard of. We always talked about changing the narrative, and I think we’ve done that.”
Rodriguez and Krohn, the team’s lone senior starter — Mount Vernon had four senior starters — put up big points with 21, including 10 in the fourth quarter, and 20, respectively, while Sussberg scored nine and had nine rebounds. Sophomore Daniel Hoey continued to give an all-around effort on both sides of the ball feeding off the Mamaroneck win in the quarterfinals, and Booth put his body on the line every play defensively, and also hit a big three-pointer when the team needed it. Off the bench, seniors Rifkin and Jody Alter provided a key spark throughout the game.
In his 24 minutes on the court, Booth was plus-12 in scoring differential. During one key turnover he was literally standing on his head at midcourt.
“He's been laboring a lot of injuries all season long,” Amelio said. “He just got over an ACL injury over the summer. Finally feeling healthy, then laboring again during practice this week. He just wants to win. He would never allow me to sit him unless a doctor ordered it. Even when I take him out for 30 seconds to give him a breather, he gets frustrated because he just wants to be in there with his teammates winning and he knows what it takes. He’s a win-at-all-costs type of player and that’s what we need.”
Mount Vernon applied pressure most of the game and it was intense. Scarsdale had some miscues in trying to break it, but overall they were able to keep their poise and energy to move the ball down the court efficiently.
“The press was really, really aggressive,” Booth said. “We knew that coming into the game. We spent a lot of practice this week actually trying to break presses. We knew that they were going to be on us for the entire game. When they started off back we were kind of like OK, and then we eased into it, but eventually they picked up the pace and we had to pick it up as well. It was still aggressive throughout the game. But I thought we handled it well.”
Holding Mount Vernon to three points in the first quarter and leading 12-3 was a huge boost for Scarsdale and it gave them wiggle room that paid off late in the game when Mount Vernon eventually stormed back later in the game.
“I just thought that set the tone for what we wanted to do,” Rifkin said. “We just battled. Guys were getting hurt and they never stopped. Carlos and Asher had 21 and 20 and they did their job. And AJ stepping in, Hoey stepping in, both playing a great game defensively. And Jake getting some big threes. Jody [Alter] coming off the bench after the concussion and broken finger and he comes in and scores right away. That’s what we needed. I feel like everyone did their job.”
Sussberg said, “Bringing that defensive energy really transitioned to our offense, and we're a really good transition team. I feel like if we score transition we're really hard to beat when everyone’s making shots. Everyone's scoring and that’s what we're trying to take into the next game.”
Playing in the county center was a dream come true for the Raiders. It was the team’s fourth trip to the final four this century, and it attracted a large student section cheering their classmates on in the upper level.
“The depth perception is a little weird, but you get used to that and it’s awesome,” Sussberg said. “The fans were crazy and it was our first time playing in a real arena.”
Added Booth, “Our team feeds off the crowd’s energy and we feed off our own energy. So when someone like Carlos or Asher or a Jake or Hoey makes a big shot, we all feed off that. Or if I make a big shot. We keep feeding off that, we keep going and … as a team we share this camaraderie that we built throughout the season.
“I loved having the fans. I told all my friends to come and we've been telling all the grades to come the entire week. Seeing them all in black supporting us means the world.”
Four of the Raiders are also seeking a Section 1 title in a second sport as Noah Chappell and Krohn have won in lacrosse, Oscar Langford in volleyball and Rifkin in soccer, where he won a state title this past fall.
“Even when we first got the draw knowing that we would go through and play Mamo three times and then Mount Vernon for a third time and then having to turn around quickly and come back Sunday, the kids did a phenomenal job,” Amelio said. “You’ve got to beat the best teams that are out there every single day. When you're in the Final Four obviously anybody here can win at all, and I'm just happy to be on the on the good side of it tonight.”
How they did it
After Mount Vernon won the tip-off, Booth got the defense started with a block against sophomore Tavien Tyler and soon after Krohn took a charge. Hoey gave the Raiders a 1-0 lead by hitting the back end of his free throws. Sussberg and Hoey forced a turnover and later the Raiders got a travel call against Mount Vernon under the basket.
Rodriguez followed that up with a pull-up jumper for a 3-0 lead with 5:27 left. After Mount Vernon passed the ball out of bounds, Rodriguez missed a pair of free throws.
Mount Vernon got on the board with a pair of free throws by Dylan Colon and Mount Vernon began really putting the press on defensively.
Sussberg assisted Krohn on a three-pointer than made it 6-2. After a steal by Hoey, Rodriguez hit an underhand lay-up. After Hoey grabbed a defensive rebound Rodriguez hit another shot and after Krohn got a defensive rebound Hoey went all the way and Scarsdale led 12-2. Mount Vernon called timeout with 2:34 left in the first quarter. Tyler hit the back end of his free throws with 39.4 seconds left and it was a 12-3 game heading into the second.
Rodriguez and Hoey got things going in the second quarter with a defensive rebound and a lay-up, respectively for a 14-3 lead. The Knights hit another free throw and Tyler made it 14-6 with 5:44 left in the half.
Alter, having recently subbed into the game, was assisted by Krohn and made it 16-6. Sussberg scored on a putback to make it 18-8.
Elijah Morris hit a pair of free throws for Mount Vernon and Jaden Fearon scored on a putback to make it 18-12 with 4:28 left. Krohn made it 20-12, but Colon drained a three to cut the lead to five points with 3:32 left. Rodriguez scored, and off a missed shot Hoey tipped the ball to Sussberg for a big three and it was 25-15.
Mount Vernon got a putback, Krohn a lay-up and Tyler a three and the score was 27-20 with 51 seconds left in the half. Mount Vernon hit a free throw and Booth got an offensive rebound and assists Rodriguez for a three-pointer with 16 seconds left. Sussberg got a defensive rebound to end the half with the Raiders up 30-21.
Mount Vernon started the second half with a 5-0 run and Scarsdale called timeout up 30-26. A bucket by Krohn put the Raiders got back on the board with 4:25 left. Tavien hit a three and pulled within three points at 32-29. Krohn scored again and Colon hit the and-one for a 34-32 score.
Krohn drained a three off the inbounds pass with 2:50 left in the third quarter, but Colon responded in kind and it was 37-35 12 seconds later.
Sussberg hit a free throw and Colon made a layup after Sussberg got flattened at midcourt and Mount Vernon was within one at 38-37 with 2:04 left.
Mount Vernon took its first lead of the game at 39-38, but Rodriguez found Booth for a three with 1:01 left to make it 41-39. Mount Vernon tied the game at 41-all as Jordan Wilshire scored off the inbounds with 35 seconds left in the third.
Colon scored the final basket of the quarter and the Raiders trailed by two once again at 43-41.
Hoey found Krohn under the hoop for the tying basket and the Raiders went up again 46-43 on a three-pointer by Krohn with 6:27 left in the game. Morris hit a pair of free throws, but his team then missed a pair and after Rodriguez got the rebound and scored to make it 48-45.
Wilshire scored, Krohn hit a free throw and after Booth’s steal that turned him heels over head, Rifkin assisted Rodriguez for a 51-47 lead with 4:09 left.
After Krohn picked up his fourth foul Mount Vernon hit a front end free throw, but Sussberg grabbed the rebound on the back end miss. Sussberg soon after hit a three for a 54-48. Mount Vernon missed a pair of free throws and Sussberg got the rebound again, but a Mount Vernon steal and Colon basket made it 54-50. Morris scored to make it 54-52 with 2:40 left. A free throw by Mount Vernon made it 54-53 with 2:25 left to play.
Rodriguez hit a one-and-one for a 56-53 lead. He then had a steal and went all the way for a 58-53 lead with 1:08 left. Krohn hit Booth as they beat the press for a layup and the lead was 60-53 with 43 seconds left. Rodriguez hit two free throws with 34.2 seconds left. The lead was 62-53.
Krohn fouled out with 23.2 seconds left, getting Chappell in the game. Chris Fitzgerald hit two free throws for Mount Vernon and the Raiders turned the ball over and Mount Vernon hit a three-pointer with 7.4 seconds left. They trailed 62-58 and had new life. Hoey, coming up clutch once again at the free throw line, sealed the victory by hitting his one-and-one free throws with 3.8 seconds left.
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