COLTS NECK - Jared Kimbrough began his high school career under a spotlight at one of the most storied public school programs in the state and certainly within the Shore Conference. He was regarded by many familiar with his game as the next great player at Neptune High School before he ever played a game for the Scarlet Fliers.

It took a couple of years of growing pains for the 6-6 junior and an uncharacteristic losing season for the program last year, but Kimbrough and his time are now starting to tap into their sky-high potential.

While Kimbrough had his moments during his first two high school seasons, he has turned into a consistent force for a resurgent Neptune team, which won its seventh straight game Saturday by beating Colts Neck, 50-48. Kimbrough helped ignite the victory with his sixth double-double of the season - a 10-point, 10-rebound performance that included five blocked shots.

Through 11 games this season, Kimbrough is averaging 15.5 points and just north of 10 rebounds to go along with nearly four blocks per game.

Neptune junior Jared Kimbrough. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"Jared is 100-percent turned around from the Jared I coached my first two years," second-year Neptune coach Joe Fagan said. "He practices hard every single day. He comes to compete every single day. His attitude and his effort is a 360-degree turnaround and you're seeing it when he plays.

"He's playing as well as anyone in the Shore Conference right now. I don't care what anyone says. Double-doubles are hard to come by and he's getting them on a consistent basis, while being the main guy that teams are guarding. So they're trying to take him away and he's still scoring."

Fagan spent last season trying to convince his guard-heavy varsity roster to center its offense around Kimbrough while also convincing Kimbrough he was good enough to have an offense center around him. There was one catch, though: he had to practice harder.

"He's not a selfish kid, it wasn't a lack of killer instinct or anything like that," Fagan said. "It was just a lack of practicing hard. And now he's practicing hard and he's improving every single day. His footwork is so much better that when he catches the ball now, he's prepared."

"I had to watch the older guys for a year and learn from them (as a freshman)," Kimbrough said. "It helped me to learn not to make some of the same mistakes that they made and it's been a learning process for me ever since."

Although Saturday did not mark Kimbrough's most robust stat line, he was in the center of a Neptune offense and defense that once again executed its way to a victory. Kimbrough was one of four Scarlet Fliers in double-figure scoring, with senior Jules Calhoun leading the way with 12 points, senior Seth Harrington adding 11 and junior Scott Fields netting 10.

The two teams - both of which knocked off perennial Class A North power Christian Brothers Academy earlier in the week - played even throughout the first half. They were tied at 12 to end the first quarter and remained deadlocked at 26 heading into the halftime locker room.

Neptune then shook loose with a 14-2 run that spanned most of the third quarter to turn a 29-28 deficit into a 42-31 lead - the largest advantage for either team all game. Kimbrough scored six points during the run, which ended when Colts Neck junior Dan Gaines hit a three-pointer just before time expired in the third.

"The second half was as good a basketball as I've coached at Neptune," said Fagan, who guided the Fliers to the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals in his first year. "Execution-wise, being patient on offense, throwing the ball inside, making the extra pass - we did all of that in the second half."

Colts Neck trimmed its deficit to four points on two occasions and pulled within 48-45 on a three-point play by junior Ben Bosland with 1:20 left. Neptune went back up by five, 50-45, by hitting the front end of two different one-and-one trips to the line before Gaines delivered a three-pointer to pull Colts Neck within 50-48 with 17 seconds left.

Calhoun missed the front end of a one-and-one and Colts Neck senior Brendan Clarke drew a foul to set up a chance to tie the game with two free throws. Clarke - who is no stranger to hitting clutch shots - missed the first attempt with 4.1 seconds left, then missed the second attempt on purpose. The ball went out of bounds off Neptune to give the Cougars yet one more opportunity underneath the basket with two seconds left.

Gaines took a contested, fadeaway three from the left corner that missed wide right and Clarke's tip-in missed the mark to end the game with Neptune's winning streak intact.

"Our confidence level was high," Kimbrough said of the last possession. "We were just switching on everything and hopefully we would have somebody right there to defend the shot."

Gaines led Colts Neck with 16 points, Clarke finished with 14 points and six rebounds, and Bosland had 11 points and eight boards.

Since starting the season 1-3 with one-point losses to Marlboro and Bloomfield Tech and a lopsided loss to unbeaten Freehold Township, Neptune has rolled through its schedule. During their current streak, the Scarlet Fliers have beaten, among others, Ewing, Middletown North, CBA and Colts Neck.

"It's just been communication, moving the ball and playing as a team," Kimbrough said. "That's mainly been it."

While Neptune has had to reshuffle its backcourt some this season in the wake of Barry Brown transferring to Roselle Catholic after leading the team in scoring as a junior in 2015-16, the Scarlet Fliers still returned a host of guards to its back court. The difference between this year and last - when the Scarlet Fliers began the season 2-8 and could not recover to make the Shore Conference Tournament - has been Kimbrough's dominance on both ends.

"What he did today is what he's done every single game this year," Fagan said. "He goes out, he's unselfish, he lets the ball find him. When he gets it, he's extremely efficient - whether it's passing or it's scoring. He shoots a high percentage. He does it every day."

Fagan said he noticed the transformation from day one of this season and he expects colleges will start to take notice soon enough.

"He's way underrated on the college radar right now," Fagan said. "It's a matter of time. He's going to keep getting better every day, because every day in practice, he's just bringing it.

"He's a mid-major (Division I) guy and he could easily bump up."

 

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