ABERDEEN - With under seven minutes to go, Matawan's chances to win its boys basketball season-opener vs. Neptune Friday night were slim.

If any team knows the value in fighting against long odds, it is the Huskies and they have junior Darrell Rogers to thank for that.

Rogers will not be able to play for his school this season following a breakout sophomore year because of near-death experience in May, but he is already contributing to the team by serving as its inspiration.

Just like their recovering teammate, Matawan's players stared down long odds Friday night and overcame them.

Junior John Beukers scored the winning layup with five seconds left and the Huskies rallied from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Neptune, the No. 5 ranked team in the Shore Sports Network Preseason Top 10, 50-49.

"We take one look at Darrell on the bench and we know there is no excuse to not keep fighting," Beukers said. "With every he has been through and what we have watched him go through, down 12 against Neptune is nothing compared to that. Emotions were running high, the crowd was into and we just never gave up on ourselves."

Rogers took in the game from the Matawan bench, which might seem like a trivial piece of information for player recovering from an injury, but is anything but given when Rogers endured. In late May, Rogers went into cardiac arrest during an AAU practice and had to be revived by two of his coaches on the practice floor. He spent three months in the hospital and the brain damage he suffered posed a threat to his motor skills and his overall quality of life going forward.

To what extent Rogers could recover was unknown in the weeks following his collapse, but in the past several months, he has made great progress. According to Matawan coach John Giraldo, Rogers is taking part in home-schooling and, as he showed on Friday, he is able to go out and interact with friends. Giraldo said not all of Rogers memory has come back and conversations are not as easy for him as prior to the incident, but his progress has been as positive as could have been expected.

"He looks great, he is walking around and talking," Beukers said. "He is the same exact person he was before. I didn't know how he was going to be when we found out how bad his condition was after it, but he is doing great right now. We're all happy he is doing better."

Matawan junior Ethan Okello (left) with classmate Darrell Rogers. (Photo by Matt Manley)

When Rogers showed up Matawan's season-opener, he served as a reminder for his team what it looks like to fight through the toughest adversity.

"I love seeing him," Beukers said. "He is an inspiration. He is fighting through it, he is always happy. I don't know how he keeps his spirits up like that all the time but it's great to see. He's one of a kind."

"Most of the guys in our rotation are in Darrell's class and have been playing with him since fourth and fifth grade," Giraldo said. "Seeing him in the gym tonight, if it doesn't inspire anybody who sees him and knows the story, it should. The other part to it there are a lot of unproven guys out there who have waited behind older guys and even Darrell last year so they are hungry to prove themselves."

On Friday, Matawan's on-court adversity took the form of a 44-32 deficit with under seven minutes to go. A four-point possession ignited the comeback, with Beukers hitting a free throw and, after an offensive rebound, junior Niles Haliburton knocking down a three-pointer to cut Neptune's lead to 44-36.

Haliburton hit four three-pointers in the second half, including two on consecutive possessions to cut Neptune's lead to 47-44 with three minutes left to go.

"We have a lot of leaders on this team," Haliburton said. "John was telling us at halftime and even in the second half that we were still in this. We had to play good defense for the last five minutes, got good shots, made a big stop, got the ball to John for the last shot and came out with the win."

Neptune led, 49-46, with under a minute to play and the possession but turned the ball over with 32 seconds left. Junior Ethan Okello rebounded a miss by senior Quincy Wathington on the other end and scored on the putback to cut the Neptune lead to one with 12 seconds left.

After a timeout, Matawan forced a turnover on a five-second call under the Neptune basket and on the ensuing play, Beukers went to work in the post and scored against a mismatch in the paint to give Matawan its first lead since the first quarter.

"That's an easy read on that play," Beukers said. "They didn't have the big guy on the floor, I felt good in the post all night. I didn't finish a couple of them, but I knew in that situation, I would be able to finish. I told coach what we were doing, he trusted me with it and that was it."

Neptune senior Dwaine Jones's attempt at a winning three-pointer was just a little long and the Huskies celebrated the opening-night upset on the floor with their student section.

Beukers and classmate Haliburton each finished with 14 points and Beukers also pulled down 14 rebounds and dished out four assists in the win. Okello finished with 10 points and Wathington poured in nine in Matawan's balanced offensive effort.

Matawan hung with Neptune in the first quarter, with Wathington hitting a stepback jumper to pull the Huskies within 12-11 through the first eight minutes. Neptune caught fire late in the second quarter and took a 30-24 halftime lead behind 7-for-13 shooting from three-point range during the first half.

Junior Sean Young led Neptune with 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting from three-point range while Jones finished with 13 points, six rebounds and three assists. Sophomore Sam Fagan contributed eight points and six assists while senior Mekhi Moore posted eight points, eight rebounds and four blocks off the bench for Neptune.

The emotion Matawan played with on Friday night will be hard to sustain over the course of a full season but the Huskies showed that no situation will shake their confidence and resolve.

"It's going to be almost impossible to play in games with that much emotion all year long," Giraldo said. "One thing I know about these guys, though, is they are not going to quit. They are going to play hard."

Matawan is not a better team without Rogers, who might have been the primary candidate to lead the team in scoring after the graduation of Mike Dunne and Reggie Tawiah from last year's 20-win team. At the same time, his fight away from the court has inspired the rest of he teammates to step up and be the best versions of themselves.

Even when he is not playing, Rogers is having a major impact.

"We play with a fire," Beukers said. "He comes to practices and when we see him - he can't do anything. We know he would bust his ass out there with us and since he can't do anything with us, we want to do it for him. We just want to give everything we have back to him."

"Darrell was a big part of this team," Haliburton said. "What he went through was tragic but this season is for him."

 

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