WHITE PLAINS, N.Y.— It’s been a long road for the North Salem boys basketball team. The Tigers have endured some difficult seasons over the past few years.
A year ago, a young North Salem team had its heads down after losing to Alexander Hamilton in the Class C semifinals at the Westchester County Center.
Twelve months later, against the same opponent, the second-seeded Tigers were hoisting the Gold Ball after defeating the No. 4 Red Raiders 61-57 in the Section 1 Class C final on March 4 at the County Center.
“We turned the whole team around,” senior captain Miles D’Alessandro said. “A few years ago when I first came (up to varsity), we had a losing record and the next year was even worse. To get to this now and win the section title is huge. It feels great.”
It was the Tigers’ first section championship since 2008.
“It’s been a while,” North Salem coach Henry Sassone said. “This group has been with me now for three years. The great thing is that we only graduate four from this group. We’ve taken our lumps the last couple years and we’ve had to deal with a lot of adversity. The kids hung in and they worked hard. We believed and they came up against a team that I thought was red hot. They were very athletic and could get to the rim. They were big and they were long. We just executed our game plan, hung in there, the kids bought into it and we had enough to win.”
Chris Alterio was a man on a mission in the win. The junior captain netted 29 points and grabbed 12 rebounds on his way to being named tournament MVP.
“He was a beast,” Sassone said. “He was as big as you could be. We were waiting for him to have a breakout game.”
It was quite the day for Alterio. On top of earning MVP honors, he also netted his 1,000th career point in the first quarter.
“That was really cool,” Alterio said. “To hear all the fans and hear it on the loudspeaker, it was something a lot of people don’t get to experience.”
Alterio, who scored 22 of his 29 points in the first half, willed his way to the hoop and scored most of his baskets in the paint and on short jumpers. He was highly efficient, going 12 of 16 from the floor.
“No one was stopping me,” Alterio said. “All of these years of hard work, I was not walking out without a Gold Ball. This was our game and we proved it today.”
Alterio and Austin Waldron had back-to-back baskets to give North Salem a 51-48 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
Senior John Martabano scored four-straight points with his second basket coming on a fast break layup to give North Salem its biggest lead of the game, 55-49, with four minutes to spare.
“I know I was getting frustrated and a couple of the guys were getting frustrated,” Martabano admitted. “The key was to just stay tough and keep running on them because that was one of our game plans. We’re good in transition, so I think that was what we had to stick to.”
Hamilton fired back and cut the deficit to three, but a D’Alessandro putback extended the lead back to five points with 1:23 to go.
“We just focused in and we didn’t turn it over,” said D’Alessandro, who scored 13 points and had five assists on his way to being named to the all-tournament team. “We made our shots at the end and put together a nice run.”
With the Tigers clinging to a 59-57 lead, Hamilton had two chances at the rim, but couldn’t finish. Alterio grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 1.5 seconds left. He made both to clinch the win. A heave from Hamilton was batted down at mid-court and the celebration commenced.
“We couldn’t foul—that was the thing,” Alterio said of the final possession. “We just tried to stay away from them, not foul and then get the rebound.”
Despite Alterio’s heroic first-half efforts, North Salem trailed 35-33 at halftime against an athletic Hamilton squad.
The Red Raiders scored many of their baskets on fast breaks and on putbacks throughout the game, but the Tigers were able to get stops when it counted in the second half.
“We knew they were going to run in transition,” Martabano said. “It was just a little faster than we thought. We just kept saying, ‘Get back on defense.’ We just got back and we played tough.”
Sassone thought Hamilton wore down a bit and got tired in the second half. The Red Raiders couldn’t keep up their blistering first-half pace.
“They went a little cold in the second half,” the veteran coach said. “We did a better job rebounding the ball and didn’t give them as many opportunities. We defended a little bit better in the second half.”
Martabano finished with eight points. Waldron had four points, seven rebounds and a block. Ryan Donovan netted four points, while Timmy Outhouse had three points.
To get to the finals, North Salem defeated sixth-seeded Keio Academy 54-41 in the semis on March 1.
North Salem got off to a slow start as it led only 21-18 at halftime.
The Tigers came to life in the second half. A Donovan trey and three-point play from Alterio had North Salem up 34-24 after three quarters.
Alterio kicked out a pass to Donovan for another three to start the fourth quarter. D’Alessandro hit four free throws with Martabano going 1 for 2 and North Salem held a commanding 42-28 edge midway through the decisive quarter.
Alterio led the way again with 16 points, 11 rebounds and three steals. D’Alessandro had 15 points and eight rebounds. Donovan had 13 points and five rebounds, while Martabano chipped in seven points, six rebounds and three assists.
After winning just nine games last season, the Tigers knew they had to put in plenty of work in the offseason if they were going to be contenders this campaign. They did just that and it showed right away.
“We started December off 6-1,” Sassone said. “Once we got through the beginning of January, I started to think we might be able to make a run. The last couple of weeks the kids really bought in.”
By the middle of January, the Tigers already had as many wins as they did last year.
“We were like, ‘Alright, we can only get better from here,’” D’Alessandro said of the fast start. “I think at that point we realized we had a shot at it.”
The experience of playing at the County Center last year and earlier this season was also a benefit.
“We’ve played here multiple times,” Martabano said. “Last year, [Hamilton] beat us so it was good to come and beat them.”
North Salem (17-6) faced off with Section 9’s Millbrook at SUNY New Paltz on March 7 in the regional semifinals. A win there advances them to the Class C regional final against Section 11’s Stony Brook at 2:30 p.m. on March 11 at Suffolk Community College on Long Island.
“We’re fired up and ready to win it all,” Alterio said.