NEPTUNE - By the end of this season, Neptune senior Dwaine Jones was the only regular from last year's team left standing in the Scarlet Fliers program and, figuratively speaking, he might have been barely standing.

Jones shouldered the load for a Neptune team that, on top of replacing a first-team All-Shore forward and two other senior starters, lost sophomore point guard Sam Fagan for the season on Dec. 29.

According to his coach Joe Fagan, Jones has looked spent late in the season. On Saturday in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III semifinals against No. 6 Burlington Township, Jones had one last burst to reach a career milestone and bring his team to the brink of a sectional championship appearance.

Jones scored his 1,000th point and ignited a fourth-quarter rally by Neptune, but the sixth-seeded Falcons delivered from the free-throw line and on the defensive end down the stretch to end Neptune's season, 44-36.

"All year long, Dwaine carried us and it took its toll the last few weeks," Fagan said. "You saw it in the SHore Conference Tournament, you saw it in the pick-up games and in the state tournament. He was worn down from having to work so hard to get shots off. We needed to be better at that, we tried to address it and make changes but it was hard to do this late in the year."

Entering the fourth quarter, Neptune (18-10) trailed Burlington Township (22-7), 31-22, and Jones was stuck on seven points - seven shy of the 1,000-point milestone. The Falcons maintained a nine-point lead at 34-25 when Jones got going.

"I told my team before the game that I just wanted to win," Jones said. "If there were double-teaming me or trying to get the ball out of my hands, then I'm not going to try to force shots. We were going to run the offense and try to get the best shot.

"In the fourth quarter, we were down by nine and I was, I think, seven short and I ran off eight points in a row. I wasn't thinking about the thousand, that was just me being aggressive trying to pick my team up."

Jones connected on long three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to cut Neptune's deficit to 34-31. Wesley Robinson missed the front end of a 1-and-1 for Burlington Township and Jones came back with a floater off the glass to make it eight straight points and 1,001 for his career with 2:43 to go.

Jones's basket pulled Neptune within one point and after Robinson missed another front end, the Scarlet Fliers had a chance to take the lead. Jones then missed the front end of his own 1-and-1 chance and Marcus Moore responded with a layup on the other end to push the lead back to three, 36-33.

Jones earned another trip to the free-throw line when he was fouled on a three-point attempt but missed the first two before hitting the third and trimming the Neptune deficit to two.

"I knew I could take the game over at some point and as long as we got stops and stayed close, we would have a shot," Jones said. "I got my opportunities but I missed my free throws, which is something I usually don't do, so I've got to live with that, but that's alright."

Burlington Township sealed the game by holding Neptune without a field goal after the Jones 1,000th point and making their final eight free-throw attempts. After missing two 1-and-1 front ends earlier in the fourth, Robinson made his last six foul shots.

Neptune led the game, 17-14, at halftime but Burlington Township began the third quarter with 12 straight points and hounded Neptune into nine turnovers in the third quarter alone.

"We always talk about the first four minutes of the game and the first four minutes of the half being the most important as far as setting the tone," Jones said. "We did a good job to start the game but in the third quarter, I felt like we just came out flat for whatever reason and had to play from behind. When you have to play from behind against a team like that, you don't win many games."

"We made some bad decisions during that stretch and a lot of that had to do with (Burlington Twp.)," Fagan said. "They have a lot of length and they are pretty quick. We knew that coming in and we did a pretty good job taking care of the ball. Our zone bothered them in the first half but once we had to come out of it, they broke us down a few times."

Jones finished with 18 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three steals to close out his career with 1,004 points. He saw varsity minutes in each of his first three seasons and was a starter for the last three, emerging as Neptune's secondary offensive option after current La Salle freshman Jared Kimbrough.

Last year, Jones delivered one of Neptune's most memorable moments of the past four years when he hit a last-second three-pointer to give Neptune a win over Ewing in the Central Jersey Group III quarterfinals.

That shot gave Neptune its final win of a 22-6 season in 2017-18, a standard that would have been hard for this year's team to meet even if things had not taken a turn for the worse in late December.

Neptune was on the brink of winning the Neptune Holiday Jubilee Tournament when Fagan fell awkwardly on his left leg and suffered a severe knee injury that knocked him out for the season. At that point, with Fagan out of the lineup and Jones the only player back with experience from the prior season, a prosperous season seemed far-fetched.

"Everybody was telling us we weren't going to be good without Jared - kind of the outside noise - but I knew we were going to be a good team," Jones said. "When Sam got hurt, that hit me hard because he's like my little brother out there and it was disappointing that I wasn't going to get to play with him in my last year. But I knew I had to step up and be a leader for my team. It took a couple games to adjust without Sam but we came together as a team and had a good run."

Neptune went 1-3 after completing the Holiday Jubilee to fall to 5-5 and it was then that Jones threw the team on his back for a stretch of 11 wins in 12 games during which he averaged 18.9 points. Jones finished his senior season averaging 17.9 points per game.

"When Sam went down, we had one varsity player who actually played in games last year," Fagan said. "I always believed that if you defend and you rebound and you take care of the basketball, you can find ways to win in high school basketball.

"It's a 32-minute game - it's not 40 or 48. If you can find ways to win with your defense, that's how you have a winning season. Dwaine had a run there where we won 10 or 11 games and he was doing everything for us on both ends of the floor. It was the best basketball of his career."

 

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