POINT PLEASANT BEACH - From the opening minutes of its NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I semifinal game against South Hunterdon, the Point Pleasant Beach boys basketball team showed off its three-point range from multiple positions in the lineup.

While three different Garnet Gulls players hit a first-quarter three, Point Beach's No. 1 three-point threat was saving his fireworks for later in the game.

Jimmy Panzini takes the ball to the rim against South Hunterdon on Saturday. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Jimmy Panzini takes the ball to the rim against South Hunterdon on Saturday. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Senior Jesse Hill hit seven of his 10 three-point attempts in the game and scored 24 of his game-high 29 points in the second and third quarters to help lead the No. 3 seed and two-time defending sectional champions to a 71-50 win over the No. 7 Eagles.

"I love shooting in this gym," Hill said of his team's home court. "For some reason, it's just a great gym to shoot in. The rims look like they're huge, and it just feels like every shot you put up is going to go in."

For the third straight season and the second straight year in the sectional final, Point Beach will host Shore Regional in a state playoff game, with this year's sectional final slated to tip off on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.

Hill finished with eight rebounds and four blocks to complement his red-hot shooting, which also included 9-for-13 shooting overall. After Point Beach stormed out to a 19-7 lead after one quarter, Hill helped thwart a South Hunterdon run during the second by scoring all 10 of Point Beach's second-quarter points as the Garnet Gulls took a 29-25 lead into the locker room.

The second quarter proved to be just the beginning for Hill, who went 4-for-5 from behind the arc in the third quarter and scored 14 points total in the quarter. He capped his scoring with a three-pointer in the fourth and sat for a chunk of the final eight minutes with four fouls.

"When Jesse is feeling it like that, it's just get him the ball anyay you can," junior guard Jimmy Panzini said.

Panzini, meanwhile, sat for a majority of the first half - including the entire second quarter - with two fouls and his departure from the lineup and return later in the game marked two major shifts in play. South Hunterdon outscored Point Beach 18-10 in the second quarter, while Panzini returned in the second half to score 20 of his 23 points and ignite a second-half surge that saw the Gulls outscore the Eagles 42-25.

"It's no secret, we're a different team with Jimmy on the floor," Point Beach coach Nick Catania said of Panzini, who missed time in February with a sprained ankle. "He's a ball-handler on offense, he can get to the rim, and defensively, he's relentless. We definitely have an edge about us on the defensive end when he is out there."

Senior Mike Frauenheim scored all nine of his points in the first quarter to help Point Beach storm out to that 19-7 lead. Frauenheim added two three-pointers to Point Beach's total of 12 as a team. Panzini, junior Mike Rice and senior Ryan Sheehan each added a three for the Gulls.

Frauenheim and fellow senior Chris Schifano are the lone regular players from last year's sectional championship team, while Hill and Panzini are among the group of newcomers chasing their first state championship.

Panzini has been in the thick of the state championship picture as a bench player for St. Anthony prior to his transfer to Point Beach.

"I remember seeing (Point Beach) play up at the Dan Finn Classic in Jersey City last year and thinking, 'Wow, these guys are good. They play ball like this at the Shore? Where I live?''' Panzini said.

"It's been a great experience playing in front of this home crowd and I've heard all about what to expect in the final. The atmosphere is going to be crazy. This is what you look forward to when you play high school basketball."

Hill played in the the Central Jersey Group IV playoffs last year with Jackson Memorial, which fell to Sayreville in the sectional quarterfinals.

"The level of hunger is as high as it can be," Hill said. "We've heard from Mike and Schifano what this feeling is like, and all year, the rest of us have been working for a chance to experience it for ourselves. Just playing in the game is going to be something we'll remember, but we came here to win a championship and that's our focus."

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