Axel Rodriguez needed just three points to reach 1,000 career points. He did that in the game’s opening minute on Friday night, hitting a three-pointer from the side of the key that put him in with that very select group of New Paltz boys that have hit the 1,000 mark: Charlie Davis (1982), Tom Morales (1991) and Matt Petruzzelli (2008), but even more hit for a career-high 29 in his face-off with Saugerties’ freshman phenom Dior Johnson as homestanding New Paltz nipped the Sawyers 57-55 in overtime, clinching the MHAL’s Division 1 title.
With the biggest crowd of the year as a backdrop, Rodriguez hit one-of-two free throws off a technical foul (a Saugerties player dunked in warmups, which is not allowed — I don’t understand why, do you?) to begin the game; then after Johnson nailed a long three, the senior guard answered back with that 1,000th point three of his own. It was the scenario all night long: Rodriguez vs. Johnson for court supremacy.
Rodriguez had seven points and Johnson 12 in the opening quarter — a 15-11 Saugerties advantage. New Paltz tightened up on Johnson defensively with Rodriguez, Sammy Marshall and Casey Burke taking turns on him throughout the second quarter, with the Huguenots running off ten straight points (one-of-two free throws from Kenny Verney, one-of-two from Jed Weires, a breakaway basket off a steal by Rodriguez and then another big three from the newly-minted 1,000-point scorer, one-of-two free throws from Chris Sifre and a putback of Sifre’s missed free throw by Matthew Simmons). The Sawyers Alex Mooers broke the string with a putback of a Liam Schoonmaker miss, but Marshall came back to hit off a break and Simmons one-of-two from the line. Mooers nailed a long three to make it 24-20 New Paltz, with Simmons hitting a side jumper just before halftime to send the Huguenots off 26-20 at the half.
The second-half opened with Johnson at the point and his big third quarter — eight points — helped the Sawyers into a 41-41 tie (his jumper at the buzzer tying the game) going into the final eight minutes. Rodriguez hit a pair of three’s in the first 4:00 of the quarter, giving New Paltz a 34-31 lead. The final 4:00 was all Patrick Murphy, as the New Paltz big man started to get untracked after missing a couple games with an ankle injury. Murphy hit on a layup off a Rodriguez steal, then after a Schoonmaker basket, hit on-of-two free throws and a possession later, a jumper from the lane to make it 39-33. Schoonmaker (a free throw) and Ryan Whitaker (three-pointer) cut the lead to 39-37, but Murphy answered with a putback of a Marshall miss, before Schoonmaker (drive through the lane) and Johnson’s buzzer-beater tied it at 41.
The final eight minutes of regulation was a dismal affair of turnovers, missed easy shots and opportunities for either team to take control of the game. The quarter ended at 4-4 (New Paltz scores by Rodriguez — a jumper in the lane — and Sifre — a breakaway off a Rodriguez steal; while Johnson made three-of-six free throws and Whitaker one-of-two) and the game headed into overtime at 45-45.
Well, the old adage of cream rising to the top was fitting in this game, as Rodriguez opened the five-minute overtime with a three and on the next possession (after a Johnson miss) nailed a pair of free throws. Johnson answered with a jumper from the lane and Mooers with a big three and it was suddenly 50-50. Here Murphy made the first of his two monster plays of the game: hitting a booming three from the top of the key with just over 2:00 remaining. Johnson came back and putback his own miss, but Rodriguez answered with a jumper from the line — it was 55-52. On successive possessions, Johnson hit three-of-four free throws to tie it at 55, the last with just 0:08.9 to play. It was New Paltz ball and it went to Rodriguez, who was fouled on a drive to the basket with 0:01.3 left in the game.
And in a season where Rodriguez truly has become “The Man”, reaching the promise that has been his cross-to-bear since he exploded onto the basketball scene as a freshman, he calmly sank both free throws to put the Huguenots up by two at 57-55. Saugerties had one last shot in the game and of course it was going to Johnson. But here Murphy came up with his second monster play, blocking the inbounds baseline pass from Schoonmaker and gaining possession. It was big game over.
Rodriguez led New Paltz with 29, with Murphy scoring 13 points and Simmons seven. Johnson hit for 32 for Saugerties.
New Paltz, 11-3 and undefeated in league play (losses to non-league Washingtonville, Lourdes and Beacon), is at Highland on Tuesday, February 5, has a makeup game with Rondout (to be announced) and hosts Wallkill in the regular season finale on Wednesday, February 13 at 5:30 p.m.