JACKSON TWP. - A showdown between the two highest scorers in the Shore Conference turned into a game less about the two sharpshooters and more into what a lot of win-or-go-home games come down to: defense.

That was just fine by Middletown North senior Rob Higgins, the two-time defending Shore Conference scoring champion and the leader again this year.

Higgins shadowed senior Daniel Sofield, the second-leading scorer in the Shore Conference, for 32 minutes and keyed the Middletown North offense with 22 points as Higgins's Lions traveled to Jackson Liberty and beat Sofield's Lions Tuesday, 47-42.

Higgins is averaging 27.9 points per game and drew the assignment of guarding Sofield, who entered the game averaging 27.3 and came out of it at 26.9 following a 16-point outing.

"Rob early on, in his freshman and sophomore year, he was a really good defender," Middletown North coach Mike Iasparro said. "That was his thing - he was a two-way player. Last year, he was in and out being sick and his energy level wasn't the greatest. I think that might have been the reason he didn't have his greatest season defensively last year. He still scored a lot but we had to save him a little bit. This year he has been great - he is able to log 32 minutes, guard the other team's best player, and score a lot."

"It's really just about maturing - getting older, getting stronger," Higgins said. "If I was a sophomore guarding (Sofield), I would have gotten hit on screens. I still got hit on a lot of screens tonight, but I would have gotten stuck to a lot of those screens. They are hard to run through when you're not as strong as the people setting them."

Higgins scored 11 points in each half and helped his team build up a 26-22 lead early in the third quarter before Jackson Liberty answered with 10 unanswered points, capped by a three-point play by Sofield that made the score 32-26.

Higgins responded with five straight points, then found junior Matt Spencer for a corner three-pointer that put Middletown North on top, 34-33, by the end of the third quarter.

Higgins started the run by banking in a three-pointer then cut the deficit to one when he stole the ball from Sofield and coasted in for the layup.

Freshman Matt Kenny later came through with a big three-pointer from the left wing to push Middletown North's lead to 41-35. After the two sides traded baskets, Sofield connected on a three-pointer to pull Jackson Liberty within 43-40.

A putback by sophomore Dubem Emenuga cut the Middletown North lead to 43-42 and Jackson Liberty got the ball back with 1:51 left. The Lions milked the clock to under a minute and then turned it over with under 40 seconds to go when Higgins stole the ball.

Jackson Liberty nearly took the lead when senior Takai Anderson appeared to steal the ball with a wide open path to the basket but senior Miles Neal was whistled for a foul against Higgins on the pass. Higgins made the two free throws and Sofield's three-point try on the ensuing possession came up just short.

Throughout Jackson Liberty's most critical possession, the Lions labored to get Sofield the ball in a position to get a shot off with Higgins stuck to him for most of the game.

"With (Sofield) it's more about chasing him around and almost beating him to the spot and knowing where he is going before he goes there," Higgins said. "Personally, I think it's a lot harder to defend because running through all of those screens is painful. You get tired. It's tough."

Higgins buried two more free throws with five seconds left to seal the win.

Freshman Tommy Giannone added 10 points and three blocks for Middletown North.

After Tuesday's game, Sofield finishes his career No. 1 on Jackson Liberty's all-time scoring list with 1,824 points, which also moves him ahead of Rumson-Fair Haven graduate Brendan Barry for 14th all-time at the Shore.

On Tuesday night, Higgins passed former Lacey star Chris Fleming for third all-time in Shore Conference history with 2,251 career points. The Middletown North senior is currently 51 away from passing Croydon Hall's Norm Caldwell, who entered the season No. 1 all-time before current Ranney senior Bryan Antoine (2,383) passed him.

Middletown North's next game will be at top-seeded Wall - a team the Lions lost to twice during the regular season. In the second meeting between the teams, Higgins held Crimson Knights leading scorer Quinn Calabrese to two points while scoring 39 points of his own and Wall still came away 66-63 winners.

"This tournament is less about the seeds than it is about the matchups and when we saw the bracket, we felt like we matched up well with the teams in our end of the bracket," Iasparro said. "We feel like with the way Wall plays, we match up pretty well against them. Wall is a very good team and we're going to have to play well but we feel like if we can execute, we'll have chance."

Middletown North will have a chance to atone for a rough second-half of the regular season that saw the Lions go from 8-7 after 15 games to 10-16 heading into Tuesday's game.

"Coming into the season, a lot of the guys on this team hadn't played varsity and now they have had a chance to grow up," Higgins said. "We're becoming a team now."

 

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