When it was over and his team had staved off the comeback to win its season opener, Kai Mitchell kept his focus pointed in one direction: Forward.
"This feels good," Spring Valley's sophomore big man said. "We've worked hard in every practice, and we're ready to take on Albertus on Wednesday. We come out to prove ourselves every game."
Indeed, Spring Valley had done just that, showing the vast promise of a team with two sophomore stars, a deep bench and abundant athleticism. The Tigers' reintroduction as a Rockland County contender began Monday afternoon with a 53-52 victory at defending Class A champ Tappan Zee, which hadn't lost at home since Jan. 10, 2011.
The 6-foot-5 Mitchell sat most of the second quarter with foul trouble but still finished with 21 points, 16 rebounds and five blocked shots. His seven offensive rebounds helped keep the Dutchmen at bay after their switch to a zone defense confounded Spring Valley and erased a 17-point, first-quarter deficit.
"I would do anything to help my team win," Mitchell said. "My teammates do a good job of getting me the ball. It had gotten hard for them tonight. I understand that. We're going to work on it at practice."
The Tigers (1-0) will be hard-pressed to ever find their first-quarter form. They were nearly flawless, forcing turnovers and racing to a 25-8 lead.
Once Tappan Zee (1-1) turned to the zone and began showing more urgency, it quickly climbed back. Foul trouble to Mitchell, Rickey McGill and Devonte O'Neal certainly didn't help as Spring Valley's lead was shaved to nine at halftime.
Luke McLaughlin's pullup jumper tied the score for the first time, 46-46, with 4:39 to play, but Jason Woodbine responded for Spring Valley, sinking a 3-pointer for his only points.
The Tigers never trailed again, although a spate of late mistakes led to three McLaughlin free throws and Tappan Zee's steal of an inbounds pass down three -- all with under 10 seconds to play. Brendan Hauser scored in a scramble at the buzzer, but the Dutchmen fell a point short.
"What does this win mean? It means we're not going to go 0-18," Spring Valley coach Willie Worsley said. "That's it. I'm not happy with them."
And Worsley wasn't the only coach demanding more.
"When you have four seniors in the lineup, you tend to think you're not going to come out so flat," Tappan Zee coach George Gaine said after a long talk with his team. "Hopefully, it's a learning experience that we're not at a point where we can come out, spot someone 17 points and expect to win."
McLaughlin, a sophomore, had 17 points and nine rebounds. Hauser and Joe Letizia each added 12 points.