By Marc Silvestrini
CLINTON – It doesn’t take much to turn a basketball game around. The difference between winning and losing can often be as thin as a whisker.
In Saturday’s Shoreline Conference Tournament championship game between Morgan and Valley Regional — won by Morgan 62-54 in a game that was much closer than the final score would suggest — that difference was as thin as a finger.
With 6:09 to play in the fourth quarter and Valley ahead 48-45, Morgan missed a shot. The furious battle for the rebound resulted in the ball being batted against the backboard and careening off several hands as it bounced out toward the free-throw line.
At that point, Morgan junior forward Alex Fratamico dashed about five yards to his right and reached for the ball with his arm stretched out between two Valley defenders. Fratamico managed to get a finger on the bouncing ball, flicking it out to teammate Zach Johnson, who was standing to the right of the key in 3-point territory.
Johnson grabbed the loose ball and calmly swished a 3-pointer that tied the game. The bucket also was the beginning of the end for the Warriors.
Twenty-seven seconds later, Fratamico buried a 5-footer from the lane to give Morgan the lead at 50-48 and the Huskies never trailed again.
“That loose ball was the turning point of the game,” Valley coach Kevin Woods noted. “We grab the ball there and it could very well be a different outcome.”
Fratamico, whose 17 points led the Huskies’ scorers, said he made his mad dash to the ball because he felt he owed his teammates the effort.
“I had just made a dumb mistake a couple of seconds before that play, so I was pretty upset,” he said. “I said to myself, I’m going to get to that ball no matter what — nothing’s going to stop me.”
Johnson, who scored 14 points, added: “The ball felt really good when it left my hands. I knew we needed a big play there. I’m just glad I was able to help my team.”
The victory secured an undefeated season for the Huskies at 15-0 as well as their first conference title since 2005. It was the fourth time in as many seasons that the Shoreline boys basketball champion ran the table in conference play.
Valley, which entered Saturday’s game on a five-game winning streak, concludes its season at 10-5.
“They’re a veteran team and they played like veterans,” said Woods, who lost to Morgan in last year’s Shoreline tournament semifinals in overtime. “We’re a young team. We’ll be back.”
Junior Drew Nye chipped in with 13 points in Morgan’s attack. Senior center Rob Zirlis, who missed huge chunks of the second and third quarters due to foul trouble, finished with nine points.
“Being a championship game, it was difficult” to be on the bench,” said Zirlis. “My teammates stepped up. That’s the thing. We have big depth. People can step in and we can replace guys, and they did that tonight. I’m just happy we won.”
Valley sophomore Jeremy Arnum led all scorers with 20 points while junior Simon Partyka added 11.
The young Warriors started the game like a team on a mission. Four points apiece by Partyka and Saagar Patel coupled with 3-point bombs from Marcus SantaMaria and James Marsden enabled Valley to race off to a 16-7 lead five minutes into the game.
But a layup by Zirlis off a feed from Johnson and two buckets, including a last-second buzzer beater by Fratamico, helped the Huskies close to within three at the end of the first quarter at 17-14.
Valley maintained its three-point lead through the first three minutes of the second quarter, but three points from Nye and buckets by Fratamico, Johnson and Connor Duffy – playing for the foul-plagued Zirlis – sparked a 9-3 Huskies run that gave the home team a 31-28 lead.
Arnum, however, converted a pair of free throws with seven seconds left in the half to whittle Morgan’s lead to 31-30 after the first 16 minutes.
“We came out and struggled with our emotions in the early going,” Morgan coach Frank Rossi said. “I really think we were too excited. Once we settled down a little in the second quarter, things began to go our way a little better.”
A baseline drive by Nye and Jason Cohen’s 3-pointer from the top of the circle stretched Morgan’s lead to 38-32 midway through the third quarter, but a deep three by Marsden and a layup by Arnum capped an 11-4 Valley spurt that gave the Warriors a 43-42 lead entering the final quarter.
After Nye’s 3-pointer from the corner put the Huskies back on top at 45-43, Valley regained the lead on a pair of Arnum buckets and led 48-45 before Fratamico’s finger roll, Johnson’s clutch, game-tying 3 and Fratamico’s go-ahead jumper turned the tide for good.
Fratamico scored an additional six points in the game’s final four minutes to lead a 12-6 Morgan run down the stretch that cemented the game, the undefeated season and the Shoreline crown.
“We threw our game plan out the window at halftime and told the kids, ‘Let’s make things simple: It’s us against them,” Rossi said. “We challenged them to go out there and just play basketball. We didn’t want to overcomplicate things and we didn’t want to over-coach.”
Rossi’s strategy combined with Fratamico’s finger and his and Johnson’s clutch fourth-quarter shooting means that a new banner will be raised in the Morgan gym at some point in the near future.
“I’m very proud to be part of this team,” Fratamico said. “We’ve worked real hard and I think we deserve every reward that’s going to come our way, including that banner up on the wall that says 2021 Shoreline champions.”
VALLEY REGIONAL (10-5)
Jeremy Arnum 8 2-2 20, Simon Partyka 5 1-2 11, James Marsden 2 0-0 6, Saagar Patel 1 4-4 6, Marcus SantaMaria 2 0-0 6, Di’Angelo Jean-Pierre 1 2-2 5. Totals: 19 9-10 54.
Zach Johnson 5 2-4 14, Drew Nye 4 3-4 13, Jason Cohen 1 2-2 5, Alex Fratamico 6 4-6 17, Rob Zirlis 3 3-4 9, Connor Duffy 1 0-0 2, Cooper Galdenzi 1 0-0 2. Totals: 14-20 62.
Score By Quarters
V 11 13 13 17–54
M 14 17 11 20–62
3-Pointers: VR–Arnum 2, Marsden 2, SantaMaria 2, Jean-Pierre 1; M–Cohen 3, Johnson 2, Nye 2, Fratamico 1.