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NEPTUNE - In each of the past two seasons, Neptune was one play and, perhaps, one player away from getting past the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III semifinal and into the sectional championship game.

On Friday night, in the same gym and against the same Burlington Township team that eliminated them last year, the Scarlet Fliers made that one last play and the player that swooped in to make it was one who spent most of his junior season on the jayvee team.

Andre Harris scored on a putback with 2.3 seconds left and Neptune - the No. 7 seed in Central Group III - rallied from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to take down the Falcons, 44-42, and advance to the sectional final for the first time since 2012.

Harris came off the bench in the second half and scored all five of his points in the fourth quarter, including the last two of the game. With the score tied at 42, junior Sam Fagan missed a fade-away from the right elbow, but Harris crashed the glass and got the bounce.

"Sam shot the ball and I was hoping it would go in," Harris said. "I saw the ball come off toward me and I just kind of shot the ball as I went up to get the rebound. It was crazy. It's just unbelievable - to win a state game like this. We have had really good teams here the past two years who haven't been able get past this round so to finally be able to get this program back to a championship game feels good."

The Neptune student section and bench flooded the court believing the game to be over, but 2.3 seconds were applied back to the clock by the officiating crew. John Paul Oluwadare's desperation heave was off the mark and the real celebration began.

Harris's first basket was a three-pointer that hit the back rim and bounced in to cut the Burlington Twp. lead to 40-39 with under two minutes to go in the game.

"Coach (Joe Fagan) trusts everybody on the bench and when the time comes, you've got to do what you can do," Harris said. "We know with match-ups, different guys are going to play in certain situations. He asked me today if I could play defense and I could play in the game and I said 'yeah' and went out there and did my best."

"He has had games on the jayvee level this year where he has hit five threes in a quarter," Fagan said of Harris. "The other coaches know that and to be honest, the other coaches are probably surprised I didn't play him sooner. Me and him have had discussions since the summer: he is a junior, he should be contributing on the varsity level and in order to do that, you have to do this, this and this better. If you do, you'll be out there. But he can shoot the heck out of it."

Senior Saadiq Armstead led Neptune with 15 points and seven rebounds off the bench, including a go-ahead three-point play off a steal with 1:31 left to go. Burlington Township senior John Paul Oluwadare answered with a driving layup to tie the game at 42 with 1:20 and both teams turned in empty possessions - Neptune with a turnover and Burlington Township on a missed shot - and the Scarlet Fliers took over with 30 seconds to go.

Senior Makai Suit chipped in 11 points behind three three-pointers, with two of those threes coming in the fourth quarter. The last of the trio was a go-ahead three that gave Neptune a 36-35 lead with under four minutes to play - its first lead since 3-2 in the first quarter.

That lead was short-lived as sophomore Jordan Dotson converted a three-point play to give Burlington Township the 38-36 lead back with 3:23 left.

Neptune outscored Burlington Twp., 24-12, in the fourth quarter after scoring only 20 points over the first three quarters. Senior Azmere Wilson ignited the fourth-quarter rally by scoring all six of his points in the quarter before fouling out on the Dotson three-point play. Neptune scored the first seven points of the fourth quarter in just 55 seconds to pull within 30-27, with Wilson scoring twice and Suit hitting a three.

Wilson also scored on a drive to tie the game at 33-33, which was the first time Neptune was tied with the Falcons since 5-5 in the first quarter.

"We can't bring our pressure for the whole game because everybody would foul out," Joe Fagan said. "We like to save it for the end of the game and down 10 in the fourth quarter, it was a good time to break it out and it worked for us. It would have been nice to make some more shots earlier in the game, but we felt like if we kept them out of the paint, they would have trouble scoring in the halfcourt and we would be in the game with a chance to win it at the end."

Neptune once again used an entire roster, with 12 players seeing the court on Friday. Sophomore O'Neill Campbell and freshman Daniel Charles were not varsity players to open the season but started the game on the floor, with Armstead and Wilson coming off the bench. Between Armstead, Wilson and Harris, 26 of Neptune's 44 points came from the bench.

"We kind of know which guys we can play in which games," Joe Fagan said. "If it works, it works and if it doesn't, we try somebody else. We have been playing 11 guys for the last few weeks and 11 guys contributed against Somerville (on Wednesday)."

Fagan finished with only seven points to go with three assists and three steals following a career-high 40-point performance in Wednesday's double-overtime win over No. 2 Somerville. Burlington Township focused their efforts around stopping him but he did manage to hit a key corner three-pointer to cut Burlington Township's lead to 33-31.

"They definitely saw the way we played last game and tried to slow us down - tried to slow me down," Sam Fagan said. "My dad said we would win the close game if we had it at the end. Azmere gets a couple steals, we cut it down, it's a close game and we win."

In last year's 44-36 loss to Burlington Township, Fagan was relegated to the sidelines while recovering from a severe left leg injury he suffered in December, 2018. The injury is still affecting him, particularly on days after games, but after having to watch his team lose in the sectional semifinal for the second straight year, no discomfort can keep him from helping his team's attempt to win the first sectional title for the storied program since 2012.

"Losing a whole year, you wonder what could you have done?," Sam Fagan said. "Watching (graduate) Dwaine (Jones) out there and wondering if we could have won it if I played. I don't think we have skipped a beat since last year. It's different personnel but this is how we should have been playing."

In order to win its first championship in eight years, Neptune will have to go through top-seeded and defending sectional champion Wall on Monday night. The Crimson Knights are 13-0 on their home floor and went 14-0 in Shore Conference Class B North play, including two wins over Neptune. Wall won the first meeting, 52-47, and the second, 57-50.

"We really wanted to get to Wall," said Sam Fagan, who is close with several of Wall's players having grown up with them. "I really can't wait to play them again. That's what we are really going for."

 

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