MIDDLETOWN - In order to reach the Shore Conference Tournament, the Middletown North boys basketball team had to get past a high-scoring Wall team with one of the Shore's top scorers who was on top of his game on Thursday.

Now that the Lions are in the tournament, that is exactly the kind of team Middletown North's postseason opponents will be up against.

Junior Rob Higgins scored 23 points, came up with a key steal and hit a pair of clutch free throws to help Middletown North survive a high-scoring shootout against Wall, 84-83, to officially qualify for next week's Shore Conference Tournament.

Middletown North junior Rob Higgins. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"We both play at a really fast pace and we both score a lot of points," Middletown North senior Dave Campbell said. "They scored 87 points the last time we played and that's not the only time that came close to 100. We can score a lot of points too, so we thought if they came in and tried to run, we could get up and down the floor with them."

The wins also eliminates Wall from SCT contention, despite the best efforts of senior guard Steve Geis. The Crimson Knights' senior and the second-leading scorer in the Shore Conference behind only Higgins hit eight three-pointers and scored 38 points to nearly carry his team one win closer to qualifying for the conference tournament.

With Middletown North celebrating Senior Night, Higgins came off the bench and shot 8-for-20 while handing out four assists. Campbell, meanwhile, poured in 20 points behind six three-pointers and also dished out six assists. Campbell's sixth three put Middletown North ahead, 76-67, and Higgins converted a layup after whipping the ball behind his back to make it 78-71.

Wall inched closer at 78-74 after after a rare offensive lull in the game that lasted for two minutes, Geis buried a three to cut the Crimson Knights deficit to 78-77.

After a pair of free throws by Higgins with 35.4 seconds left, Geis came back with another three, this one to tie the game at 80.

Wall senior Mike Cassidy, however, committed his fifth foul by giving what appeared to be an intentional foul against Higgins despite the game being tied. Higgins missed the front end of a 1-and-1, but senior Travis Cimmino grabbed the rebound and again the Crimson Knights committed a deliberate foul, this time by Geis.

"That's a scenario you can practice for hours and hours but how do you simulate that exactly like it's going to happen in the game?," Wall coach Matt Kukoda said. "And that's not the play that decided the game. I wish it was a different outcome for all of those kids on our team, but it's a good learning experience for us."

Cimmino hit both free throws to give Middletown North an 82-80 lead with 20.7 seconds left and on the ensuing possession, Higgins stole the ball from Geis when the Lions threw a triple team at Wall's top scorer.

Higgins hit two free throws to stretch the lead to four points and Geis's eighth three-pointer of the game with three seconds left came too late.

Middletown North's all-senior starting lineup got the Lions off to a 10-3 start before Higgins entered the game and helped build the lead to 20-9. Wall tied the game on three occasions, but never took the lead.

Senior Sky Cherry added 14 points and eight rebounds, while Cimmino and fellow senior Mike Youncofski scored eight points each.

Geis finished 8-for-16 from three-point range and 14-for-27 from the field for the game. Wall will still participate in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III Tournament, in which it will be the No. 14 seed and travel to play No. 3 Hopewell Valley in the opening round.

"No one has a Steve Geis," Kukoda said. "There are scholarship guys, but what Steve produces is uncanny. He's fearless, he's a competitor and his best attribute is he lifts other players up. He deserves a lot of credit because he wasn't this player when he got here."

Middletown North, meanwhile, will enter the SCT at 10-10 with a number of noteworthy wins and despite missing Higgins for a three-game stretch that led to three losses. The Lions also have four losses to teams that did not qualify - two to Long Branch, one to Wall and one to 2-17 Freehold Boro when Higgins with Higgins in the lineup.

It has been a roller-coaster season for Middletown North, but the Lions will have a chance to salvage it as a battle-tested team heading into the thick of February.

"If we come together as a team, we can beat anybody in the bracket," Campbell said. "I really believe that. If we stay together, we can make a lot of noise in the tournament, because we're not our record."

 

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