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Clarke secures playoff berth

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Entering the final two weeks of the season, Clarke boys’ basketball controlled its own destiny. Splitting their last four games would guarantee the Rams at least a .500 conference record and their first playoff berth in more than a decade.

But that goal became a bit more elusive when they lost the first of those two games, at home against Mineola on Jan. 29, and on the road against Locust Valley two days later.

While the Mineola defeat was a tough loss riddled with turnovers, coach Joe Hasbrouck said he was encouraged by their performance against first place Locust Valley (11-1), a hard-fought contest that Clarke lost by just five points.

Left with no choice but to win their final two games, the Rams came out strong on Feb. 2 at home against Seaford – a team that had beaten them one month earlier – and secured a 13-point victory. A balanced offense saw three Rams reach double-figure points: junior Brian Sullivan scored 14 points (to go with 13 rebounds), and juniors Lyvan Brioso and Michael Paul each contributed 13.

The victory set up a win-and-in situation on the road against Friends Academy last Saturday, with both teams sitting at 5-6 in Conference A-V. “It was probably the best week of practice we’ve had,” said Hasbrouck. “Being mentally focused and doing everything consistently at game speed. We were confident going into Friends. Win or lose, I was happy with the way we practiced.”

Come game day, the teams were neck-and-neck through three quarters, with the Rams trailing by a single point heading into the fourth. The game-changing play came with about two minutes and 30 seconds left, when Sullivan hit a step-back three-pointer to put Clarke up five. “it was a tough shot that let us ride out the momentum for the rest of the game,” Hasbrouck said.

The Rams held on to win 45-40, clinching a spot in the postseason. Dozens of Clarke students and parents were in attendance to show their support. “We had a pretty good crowd of kids come out,” Hasbrouck said. “That was cool.”

Paul, despite exiting in the third quarter with an ankle injury, led the Rams with 14 points. Sullivan racked up 15 to go with his eight points. With just three seniors and seven juniors on the roster, Hasbrouck praised the way his team remained focus in the final week to achieve its goal. “Proud is really the first word,” he said. “It goes down to the way they prepared and were mentally locked in all week.”

The victory was a team effort. After Paul’s injury, their sixth man, senior Anthony Caputo, stepped in and infused a jolt of energy into the team. Senior Arton Dalipi hit a couple of clutch baskets late in the game. And Brioso, at the point, helped maintain his team’s poise by guiding them into their set plays.

“That’s what was so awesome about it,” said Hasbrouck. “It was such a team win. Everyone was in it for each other, not for themselves.”

Clarke was to suit up on Wednesday night after press time against Jericho, which finished 8-6 in Conference A-II.