Heading into the Christmas break, American Studies boys basketball coach Michael Hamlett was feeling pretty good about his Senators’ season. They had just knocked off an Albert Tuitt Campus team that was leading the Bronx B-1 Division, and the win had also boosted American Studies’ record to a robust 6-3.
But those good feelings didn’t carry over once play resumed in January as the Senators started off the new year with back-to-back losses to Bathgate Educational Campus and IN-Tech Academy. That lofty 6-3 record had now turned into a rather pedestrian 6-5, and a playoff spot that once looked like a slam dunk was now in need of some help.
“We got too complacent with our record,” Hamlett said. “We were sitting at 6-3 and we got a little lazy. Our last two games we should have won, but in those two games we came out flat. And if you want to be a playoff team, you can’t come out flat like that.”
In American Studies’ most recent game last Friday versus Bronx Leadership Academy, it didn’t appear the Senators had gotten that memo as players sleepwalked their way into a 12-point halftime deficit. But a locker room defensive adjustment helped spur a dramatic second-half turnaround for the Senators, as they rallied for a 61-52 victory to inch closer to securing that coveted playoff berth.
“The biggest thing was at the half coach said we’d make an adjustment and go to a triangle-and-two (defense), and that really stopped their two big scorers,” said senior Nicholas Bliss, who sank four free throws in the final 40 seconds to help seal the win. “The defense got energized and got some stops and got some scores, and just like that, we got right back into the game.
“At that point, I just thought we were the better team, and we pulled it out.”
Hamlett’s message to his team at intermission was simple and to the point.
“I just told them our season is on the line and you’ve got to fight,” Hamlett said. “And that’s exactly what we did.”
American Studies trimmed that 12-point halftime deficit to a single point at the end of the third quarter, entering the final eight minutes down just 38-37. But with the defensive intensity turned up, the Senators were able to tie the game at 43 with 6:01 to play on a free throw by Joaquin Rojas Tineo before taking the lead for good 15 seconds later after a layup by Noam Pechter.
The Senators then made 6-of-8 free throws down the stretch to secure a win they desperately needed.
“This was a crucial game on our schedule,” said Bliss, who finished with nine points. “This was a game that we needed to win, especially after we dropped the last two before this. To bounce back today and show that we’re still a playoff team and we’re a team that can make some noise in the playoffs is big for us. A loss here would have been very demoralizing.”
Rojas Tineo finished with a game-high 26 points and Troy McLean added 10 for the Senators, but it was the stingy second-half defense that ensured this victory for American Studies.
“Once we got up six (49-43 with 4:10 to play), you could sense that they were starting to give up,” Hamlett said. “You could see they started losing their will.
“And then when their best player (Andre Lalin) fouled out, it kind of took all the air out of their sails.”
The victory improves the Senators to 7-5, and with eight wins needed to qualify for the postseason — and four games remaining in the regular season — the pressure is now off American Studies.
Or is it?
“I don’t think the pressure is off because our goal is to not just make the playoffs,” Bliss said. “Our goal is not to be an 8-8 team. Right now we’re 7-5 and our goal is to be 11-5 at the end of the season. So I don’t think the pressure is off at all. If anything, I think the pressure is on because now we want to beat RKA.”
Ah yes, the rematch with Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy was scheduled to take place Jan. 16. American Studies won the first encounter 60-49 on Nov. 28, and the Senators will look to sweep the Tigers for the first time in school history.
“I’m definitely looking forward to that game,” Bliss said. “I know a couple of the kids on that team. They were missing a couple of guys the first time we played them and I know they’re going to say that’s why they lost.
“So we want to show them that’s not why they lost. They lost because we were the better team.”