Boys Basketball: Defense, Balanced Scoring Lead Neptune Past Point Beach into SCT Semifinals
MIDDLETOWN - During the depths of a 3-7 start in coach Joe Fagan's first season at Neptune, Fagan assured his team that if they simply remained committed to the system he was implementing, the Scarlet Fliers would be in their customary spot competing for a Shore Conference Tournament title.
That prophecy has come true as 10th-seeded Neptune is now one of the hottest teams in the Shore and two wins away from its 23rd SCT title after dispatching of 15th-seeded Point Beach, 52-35, in Sunday's quarterfinals at Brookdale Community College. The Scarlet Fliers (15-9) dethroned the defending SCT champion and have now won 12 of their last 14 to come storming into Wednesday's semifinals at 7:45 p.m. against 11th-seeded Rumson-Fair Haven. It marks their first appearance in the SCT final four since winning the tournament in 2012.
"We've played as a team, just coming together, listening to coach and executing our game plan,'' said senior forward Micah Kerr, who had a double-double in the win. "Everything he said we were going to do, we've done it."
"When I come in, there's a whole different point of emphasis than coach (Ken) O'Donnell, and that took some getting used to,'' Fagan said. "Even when we were 3-7, I was saying, 'Believe me, it works. I've been doing this a long time.' We're going to start winning, and when we start winning, we're going to be a tough out, and that has happened."
Sophomore guard Barry Brown had a game-high 13 points, senior guard Kerry Kirkwood added 12, and Kerr finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds to lead the way for Neptune. Kerr also combined with junior forward Marcque Ellington to neutralize 6-foot-8 Point Beach standout Jesse Hill, a Florida Atlantic recruit who had 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting, with two of the baskets coming after the game was out of reach.
Fagan coached Hill last season at Jackson Memorial before taking the Neptune job, while Hill transferred to Point Beach. Hill was coming off a 27-point night in an upset of second-seeded Lakewood in the previous round, while Neptune was coming off a win over Manalapan in the Round of 16 in which Braves' star Kyle Mullen, a Yale football recruit, put 26 points on the Scarlet Fliers' interior defenders. Kerr and Ellington learned from that experience and used it to slow down Hill while also preventing him from getting anything going on the perimeter.
"You have to take away the open threes,'' Fagan said. "If he's open, he's a good 3-point shooter. You also have to do a good job of when the ball goes up to be committed to put a body on him because he is a good athlete. (Ellington and Kerr) got a good test the other night. Jesse is a strong guy, and they had to face that dude (Kyle) Mullen. It was 32 minutes of post defense practice, essentially. Today they did a great job."
"Everything (Fagan) said (Hill) was going to do, he did it,'' Kerr said. "(Fagan) worked me hard in practice, and I just came out and did it. That (game against Mullen) prepared me a lot. It showed me I have a lot of work to do."
Fagan's implementation of his system after taking over for Hall of Famer Ken O'Donnell didn't come without some growing pains, as he said the team "parted ways" with four players on the team before the current hot streak.
"Some guys that didn't want to buy in or change to the point of emphasis are no longer with us, and those that still are, are 100 percent committed to what we're trying to do, and it shows,'' Fagan said.
Point Beach jumped out to a 7-2 lead before Neptune came flying back with an 11-0 run to take a 13-7 lead with 6:53 left in the second quarter after Brown buried a 3-pointer.
The Garnet Gulls fought back to make it a two-point game before Keishawn Kirkwood nailed a 3-pointer on a dish by his twin brother, Kerry, and then senior Oshane Curate dropped in a lay-up on the block off a feed from guard Sean McMillan. That gave Neptune a 25-18 lead at the half, and Point Beach never got closer than seven points for the rest of the game.
Neptune's ability to get into the lane off the dribble to create either lay-ups for their big men or kickouts for open threes kept them comfortably in front. A spin move by Kerry Kirkwood and dish to Brown for a corner 3-pointer pushed the lead to double digits at 30-20 with 4:45 left in the third quarter.
"It's really simple with us,'' Fagan said. "If we don't care who scores and we're unselfish and we play together, we're tough to guard. Everybody out there can contribute, so that makes it really difficult for a team to key on guys."
The lead remained at 10 going into the fourth, and a Neptune team that struggled mightily at the free throw line in several losses early in the season went 12-for-12 from the charity stripe to start the fourth quarter and put the game away. The Scarlet Fliers finished 13-for-15 from the line in the game.
"They tried to defend us on the wings, so that allows us to get into the lane off the dribble,'' Brown said.
The Scarlet Fliers held Hill to five points and one field goal through three quarters, and they all but put the game away after some crisp passing that helped kill the clock and resulted in a lay-up by McMillan from Ellington for a 39-26 lead with 4:46 remaining.
Neptune then closed out the win at the foul line to continue its surge at the perfect time of the season.
"We can beat anyone we go against if we play as one,'' Brown said.
Neptune 52, Point Beach 35
Pt. Beach (35): Schifano 0 0-0 0, Panzini 4 2-4 10, Hill 4 2-3 11, Rice 1 0-0 3, M. Frauenheim 3 1-3 9, D. Frauenheim 0 2-2 2, Covey 0 0-0 0, Sheehan 0 0-1 0, Flanders 0 0-0 0, Piddick 0 0-0 0, Pesdowski 0 0-0 0, Clark 0 0-0 0. Totals: 12 7-13 35.
Neptune (52): Kerry Kirkwood 2 6-6 12, Keishawn Kirkwood 2 1-1 6, Kerr 3 5-6 11, McMillan 3 0-0 6, Curate 1 0-0 2, Brown 5 1-2 13, Kimbrough 0 0-0 0, Ellington 1 0-0 2, Nolan 0 0-0 0, Pugh 0 0-0 0, Huntley 0 0-0 0, Fields 0 0-0 0. Totals: 17 13-15 52.
Pt. Beach (17-8) 7 11 8 9 - 35
Neptune (15-9) 10 15 8 19 - 52
Three-pointers: (P) M. Frauenheim 2, Hill, Rice; (N) Kerry Kirkwood 2, Brown 2, Keishawn Kirkwood. Fouled out: None.