The DeWitt Clinton High School boys basketball team is picking up where it left off last season as it defeated the Far Rockaway Sea Horses, 66-40, in the first round of the citywide playoffs last week.
The No. 3 ranked Governors were scheduled to play a second-round game at home against No. 19 Brooklyn Technical of Fort Greene Tuesday night. The winner would face the winner of Van Buren (No. 11) and Graphics Campus (No. 6).
In a packed gym of Clinton fans and students who were out in full force, energy was high and the room was buzzing as everyone was waiting to see Clinton return to the form that could bring them back to the semifinals this year.
If anything, the first quarter showed how rigid the defense was on both sides, and maybe how tense both teams were. But during the first half of their first game the Governors looked like they might have an early exit.
Rockaway’s senior Omar Vincente opened up the game with an early three-pointer and junior Darren Marchong followed up with another one. Clinton had multiple opportunities to score but the shots weren’t landing. Eventually the guard trio of Jomauri Peña, Nowah Hargrow, and Jason Coachman would each battle through to the rim and hit a layup or a floater.
Senior center Bilal Ouro also drew a foul, and hit both shots, making the score an even 8-8 by the end of the quarter.
In the very last seconds Peña, who has been the engine of the team’s offense all season, attempted a layup and flipped sideways in mid-air, landing directly on his shoulder. He was writhing in pain for a solid minute with his head buried on the wood floor. He’s walked off the court, unclear whether he’s going to be able to finish the game.
To open up the second quarter, after a few missed shots in the first, Hargrow made his first three. Rockaway’s junior guard Aaron Jones, however, responded in-kind, tapping three fingers to his temple, and Marchong again followed up with another three, drawing “oohs” from the bench.
At this point, the Sea Horses seem to be spurred on by their back-and-forth with the Governors, and didn’t look at all deterred. Senior Investi Ndoutingai got substituted in at center and plays a crucial role in keeping the Governors offense alive, scoring a high 6 points back-to-back for the quarter.
With about three minutes left, Peña miraculously was subbed back in, nursing his wrist every once in a while. The half ended with Rockaway leading, 26-25,. The Governors seemed to be struggling, unable to put a consistent offense together, while the Sea Horses continued to play with a growing confidence.
“I thought the first half was an opportunity to get all of our nerves out,” Clinton head coach Chris Ballerini said. “Whenever you play your first playoff game, it’s intense, it’s nerve-wracking, and I thought we really needed to get that out of our system.”
By the midway point of the third quarter, the Governors started to get their swagger. Clinton senior guard Angel Felix dragged the team forward with three impressive floaters through traffic, and Coachman, after a long drought since the first quarter, showed his typical fancy maneuvering under the basket to hit four layups, making the score to 39-29 by the fifth minute.
Rockaway’s Jones tried to get the team back in it, but after three back-to-back turnovers and a clutch three from Peña, he had clearly reached a boiling point, curling his fingers up to his eyes and shaking as he yelled at teammate Marchong. Rockaway’s coaches were starting to point and yell, and Jones was starting to yell back.
Meanwhile chants of “Cliiiiiiiinton” rung out in the bleachers by the two minute mark, and the quarter ended at 48-31.
When asked what had changed between the first and second half, Ballerini said, “You know, I realized something after a long time in this game coaching. Yeah, we were a little bit too nervous” in the first half.
“I’ve seen coaches in the past berate guys, and tear guys down, and that’s not going to be beneficial. What we thought was, let’s build our guys up. Take a deep breath. Then, that second half we showed who we are. We’re a team that wants to compete for a city title.”
With four minutes left in the final quarter, at 57-38, Far Rockaway seemed to have resigned itself to defeat. Emotions were high, and there were moments where the Sea Horses were fighting back, but by the 2-minute mark the score was 62-40, Clinton.
Felix and Peña hit opportune threes that killed any momentum the Sea Horses tried to build, and Rockaway’s Jones was substituted out. On the way to the bench, he hugged his coaches.
With 30 seconds left, players are starting to walk the ball up court, and students were yelling “na na na na, gooooooodbye!” before the final buzzer even sounded.
After a concerning start, the Governors showed up in the second half. Whether it was nerves, or jitters, they’re going to have less and less room for slow starts with each new game going forward.