OCEAN TWP. - Entering Thursday's game against Ocean 32 points shy of his 1,000th point, Middletown North junior guard Rob Higgins appeared to be a safe distance from the milestone heading into the third quarter with his team a fairly safe distance ahead of the Spartans.

Then again, a player doesn't get this close to 1,000 points during the early part of his junior year without being able to go on a scoring tear and when his team needed to hold off a rally by Ocean, Higgins did just that.

Middletown North's six-foot combo guard scored 20 of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter to eclipse the 1,000-point milestone for his career and carry the Lions - No. 10 in the Shore Sports Network Preseason Top 10 - to a 67-59 road win over Ocean.

"It's definitely humbling to be able to get to 1,000 my junior year, but it's not something I ever really thought about coming into high school or even really coming into this year," Higgins said. "I've always been a scorer so I know I'm going to get a lot of points if I play enough games. I figured it was probably going to happen at some point."

Higgins had 16 points entering the fourth quarter and with his team in control, 41-29, it seemed as though his milestone moment would have to wait until the next week at the Albert E. Martin Buc Holiday Classic at Red Bank Regional.

Ocean, however, mounted a push during the early part of the quarter behind sophomore guard Jack Miller and senior forward Andrew Seager, which ignited a back-and-forth finish that ended with Middletown North - and Higgins in particular - marching to the free-throw line possession after possession with Ocean attempting to get the ball back.

Miller finished with a career-high 28 points, including 16 during the fourth-quarter rally. He connected for three of his four three-pointers during the fourth, two of which cut Middletown North's lead to three - the closest the Spartans would come to pulling even in the fourth quarter.

"Miller played really well for them," Higgins said. "He hit some big threes to get them back in it and they forced us to have to answer. I think they were laying off of me a little bit after how bad I shot in the first half, so it was a good time for me to step up and finally make a couple."

After both three-pointers by Miller, however, Higgins answered with a three of his own. His first made the score 53-47 and after Miller answered with another three on the next possession, Higgins came right back with another dagger to push the lead back to six, 56-50.

"At halftime, we said 'There is no way he is going to shoot the way he did in the first half again in the second half,'" Middletown North coach Mike Iasparro said. "He took great shots and he made big shots and that's what big-time players do."

Ocean senior David Yatcilla cut the deficit back to four with a driving layup, but a technical foul on Spartans coach John Terlecsky gave Higgins two free throws and Middletown North the ball. Higgins made one of the two technical shots and did the same on two more attempts on the ensuing possession to climb within four points of 1,000.

An acrobatic, left-handed layup in transition drew him two points closer and put Middletown North ahead, 60-54, with a little more than a minute to go. Senior Jack Kenny and senior Dave Campbell combined to go 1-for-4 at the line during Middletown North's next two trips and Miller knocked down a three from the wing to pull Ocean back within 61-57 with 28 seconds left.

The Spartans then fouled Higgins and the senior stepped to the line to knock down two shots, the second of which gave him his 1,000th point. He finished 17-for-21 at the foul line for the game and 10-for-12 in the fourth quarter.

"In year's past, I might not have been able to have a game like that after a bad shooting half, but I've learned how to settle in, stay confident and get to the free throw line," Higgins said. "Early on, I tried to get the other guys involved and after missing some shots, I just wanted to try to get into the paint, get some easy baskets or get to the line."

Higgins shot a modest 8-for-21 for the game after going 3-for-10 in the first half. He shot only 3-for-11 from beyond the three-point arc, but he made his last two with the game on the line and worked his way to the free-throw line for 21 attempts.

"During the first half, he wasn't making shots and he was kind of pressing a little," Iasparro said. "The last two years, as a freshman and a sophomore, that probably would have continued into the second half. Now, as a junior, you can see that he's much more seasoned and much more confident."

Higgins added four rebounds and four assists, while Campbell chipped in 14 points, six boards and three assists. Classmate Sky Cherry also contributed eight points and eight rebounds in the win.

Seager poured in 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds for Ocean and scored 10 points during Ocean's 30-point fourth quarter.

After leading the Shore Conference with 22.9 points per game as a sophomore in 2016-17, Higgins is off to an even better start as a senior. Through three games, he has already scored 94 points, good for 31.3 per game.

If not for a hand injury that cost him four games last year, Higgins might very well have reached 1,000 points as a sophomore last year, which is believed to be a feat that no Shore Conference player had ever done until Ranney standout Bryan Antoine accomplished it last season.

"I know I'm a good scorer," Higgins said. "We've also had a bunch of guys who have been able to shoot and score and that's made my job a whole lot easier, especially coming in and playing as a freshman. Without those guys, I'm not scoring 1,000 points, so they deserve a lot of the credit too."

 

Sign Up For The SSN Newsletter

Please fill out this form to sign up for the Shore Sports Network newsletter.