MIDDLETOWN - Middletown North boys basketball coach Mike Iasparo was excited to welcome junior Sky Cherry to the program this season, but thought it would be best to ease the Mater Dei Prep transfer into his role rather than force him into an already experienced, veteran lineup.

An injury to returning sophomore Rob Higgins, however, forced the acceleration of the plan and while the Lions took their lumps with the standout sophomore on the sideline, they have resembled a more complete product now that Higgins is back.

Higgins eclipsed the 20-point mark for the fourth consecutive time since returning from a wrist injury and Cherry added 16 points and eight rebounds as the Lions jumped on Red Bank Catholic early in Thursday's Shore Conference Class B North showdown en route to a 79-69 win.

Thursday's win avenged Middletown North's opening-night, 51-46 loss to Red Bank Catholic and pushed the Lions back above the .500 mark.

"We definitely needed this one and there was a little extra motivation," Higgins said. "We came out with more fire and hit a lot of shots out of the gate."

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

The Lions relied almost exclusively on the three-point shot in the first meeting between the teams and while they actually made more Thursday, they also attempted fewer. Middletown North shot 12-for-21 (57 percent) from three-point range, including 7-for-10 in the first quarter. The Lions raced out to a 25-16 lead after one and led 40-28 at halftime.

Cherry buried four of his five attempts from behind the arc - an eye-popping number considering his primary role on the team is as a power forward. Cherry transferred into the program after spending his first two years of high school at Mater Dei, during which he went from a freshman starter on a program with a losing record to a role as a reserve on last year's Shore Conference Tournament championship team.

With the Seraphs bringing in five more transfers this year after welcoming in nine the previous year, Cherry made the move to Middletown North to join a group with whom he was already familiar.

"I've been playing with these guys for a few years now," Cherry said. "Coming in, I knew my role: get rebounds, make open shots, defend hard. We have a lot of guys who can score, so I just try to play my game and help us win."

While Cherry had both his inside and outside game working, the Middletown North guards game through as well, led by Higgins. He scored a season-high 27 points while adding six rebounds and six assists in his fourth game back from his injury hiatus. In nine games this year, Higgins has scored at least 18 points in each one and reached at least 20 points in seven. The sophomore is averaging 21.9 points per game on the year.

With Higgins sidelined, Middletown North went 1-3 against four winning teams - Central Regional, Matawan, Long Branch and Neptune - that have a combined record of 33-16. He injured the wrist on his right shooting hand on with 4.7 seconds left against Sayreville on Dec. 28 and missed the potential tying and go-ahead free throws with the freshly-injured wrist.

"When (Higgins) was out for a while, we just talked about trying to weather the storm until he could get back," Iasparo said. "So we're healthy right now, I think we're in a really good place right now, and I think we're starting to hit our stride a little bit."

With Higgins down, Cherry and senior Marc Cerbo stepped into more prominent scoring roles, while senior Matt Pinckney's role expanded. Cerbo scored 10 points Thursday while junior Dave Campbell also gave the Lions 11 points.

Now that Higgins is back and Cherry is fully integrated, Middletown North hopes to hit its stride in the second half of the regular season and into late February. The Lions entered the year with high expectations internally and externally - they were the No. 4 team in the Shore Sports Network Preseason Top 10 - and while it will be a long climb to catch Manasquan for the B North division championship, postseason glory remains a realistic goal.

"Definitely not the first half of the season that we wanted to have," Iasparo said. "But I'm hoping maybe that might help us down the road. Maybe it builds character for us."

"We really feel like we're going to go on a run right now," Higgins said. "I think we'll probably win this division. We'll see what happens."


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