MIDDLETOWN - Most of Thursday night's Shore Conference Class B North game between Middletown North and Neptune belonged to Lions senior Rob Higgins.

Even while he struggled to find his shot over the first three quarters, Middletown North's all-time leading scorer still managed to reach a hallowed milestone midway through the third quarter. After that, it was just a matter of wrapping up the perfect night with a perfect finish to a comeback win.

Instead, Higgins's historic night ended with Middletown North's all-time leading scorer and his teammates watching the ball go his team's own basket and his friend in the opposing jersey stealing the show.

Higgins became the eighth member of the Shore Conference's 2,000-point club Thursday night, scored 37 points and made his last five shots to nearly carry his team to victory, but Neptune senior Dwaine Jones hit an off-balance three-pointer as time expired with Higgins draped all over him to deliver Neptune a thrilling, 66-63 win over the Lions on Higgins's big night.

Middletown North senior Rob Higgins celebrates his 2,000th career point. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"Me and Rob are real good friends, so I knew it would be a really tough match-up," Jones said. "He is going to make a lot of tough shots but I knew I had to keep my mental game right and keep playing.

"I went over to him on the sidelines and told him, 'This is a good battle.' We wanted to keep going at each other. It was back-and-fourth. Luckily, I got the ball last."

"We were talking, going back-and-forth," Higgins said. "There was one minute left in the game, we were talking trash, being friends. At the end of the day, he hit the last shot and that stings for me a little bit. But we are really good friends and I like battling with him."

Higgins reached the 2,000-point plateau on a long three-pointer with 4:36 left in the third quarter. He joined current Ranney guard Bryan Antoine, Norm Caldwell (Croydon Hall), Chris Fleming (Lacey), Jermaine Clay (Central), Jim Dolan (St. Joseph's Toms River), Jack Ardon (Lakewood) and Peyton Wejnert (Southern) in the exclusive club and passed Christian Brothers Academy all-time leading scorer Pat Andree and Wejnert over the course of the game to move into seventh on the all-time list.

"I'm really glad to be part of that elite group," Higgins said. "Only eight players in the Shore Conference have done it so I'm just proud to be part of that elite group.

"It was fun out there. We just went with Laker - four out and one in and I just went to work. It was a great game, it's too bad we couldn't come out on the other end of it."

The milestone-clinching shot gave Higgins 20 points and his team a 37-35 lead at that juncture of the game but by the end of the quarter, Middletown North trailed Neptune 49-44 and Higgins was 7-for-24 from the field.

"It was just another game for me, to be honest," Higgins said. "People were saying I was rushing my shots, but those are the shots I take all the time. I wasn't hitting them - then in the second half, I was taking the same shots I was taking in the first half and they started going in."

Midway through the fourth, Neptune built its lead to 60-50 and by that point, Higgins was just 9-for-29. That was when the 6-foot senior flipped the switch and nearly dragged his team to the finish line with a win.

Higgins drove for a layup to cut the Neptune lead to 60-52 and after a turnover by the Scarlet Fliers, he came back down the floor, dropped Jones to the floor with a crossover, and hit a step-back three-pointer to slice the Neptune lead to 60-55.

"He made me fall - that never happened before," Jones said with a laugh. "I knew I had to get him back for that."

After another defensive stop by Middletown North, Higgins again called for the ball against Jones and fired a quick-release three that once again connected, this time over the reach of Neptune's senior standout.

Once again, Middletown North's defense delivered a stop and Higgins again went one-on-one with Jones, this time pulling up just inside the three-point line for a game-tying jumper to complete a personal 10-0 run that turned a 60-50 Neptune lead with under 3:30 to go into a tie game with a minute left.

As soon as Middletown North pulled even, Jones found his stroke. The 6-2 senior got open on an inbound play under the basket and drilled a go-ahead three-pointer with 44 seconds left to go.

It was then Higgins's turn to answer and he did just that by wiggling open without the ball, taking a pass from sophomore Quentin Soler and draining a game-tying three-pointer with 17 seconds left to make it 63-63. With that final shot, Higgins wrapped up a 14-for-34 shooting game with five straight makes to end his night.

Neptune took a timeout with seven seconds left and went with a simple approach: get the ball to Jones. The senior took the inbound pass, dribbled down the timer with Higgins marking him and after a stepback and a pump-fake, Jones flung up an off-balance shot from the left wing near the corner that found the bottom of the net for the game-winning shot.

"They had a lot of momentum but coach (Joe Fagan) always trusts me with the ball in my hands," Jones said. "(Higgins) was biting on a lot of back-cuts throughout the game so I knew I had him with a pump-fake. That got me a little space to put it up and it went in."

"I think he chucked it up to be honest," Higgins said. "He's a friend of mine, so I can say that. I saw him hit it and I saw him run down the sideline, doing his little dance."

Jones's buzzer-beater was not unlike a game-winning shot he hit in last year's NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III quarterfinal win over Ewing. That shot saved Neptune's season momentarily while Thursday's shot ruined a storybook night for Higgins.

"Ever since I was little, I wanted to be in the spotlight, regardless of whether I make it or miss it," Jones said. "I want to have that burden on my shoulders, so I wasn't afraid to take that shot."

Jones finished with a team-high 23 points despite spending the first 10 minutes of the game on the bench for disciplinary reasons, according to Neptune coach Joe Fagan. It was the six 20-plus point game of the season for Jones and the fifth since sophomore backcourt-mate Sam Fagan sustained a season-ending knee injury.

Jones is averaging 18.4 points this season and is putting up 21.25 points in the eight games without Fagan. Neptune (9-5, 6-4) is 5-3 in those games and has won four straight.

"Without Sam, I knew I would have to pick the scoring load up," Jones said. "I feel like with our whole team, the difference has been our confidence. At the beginning of the year, it was like, 'Oh, only Dwaine and Sam can score the ball and no one else. We're all defenders and rebounders.' I feel like now, everybody is starting to shoot the ball with confidence and really learn their role on the team as well."

Senior Makai Suit added 17 points for Neptune and junior Jett Tinik hit three first-half three-pointers to finish with nine points off the bench.

Middletown North (8-9, 4-6) dropped below .500 with Thursday's loss and will have to travel to Freehold Township (12-2) on Saturday to try to get back to an even record as the Lions eye a possible Shore Conference Tournament berth. As for Higgins, he is now averaging better than 29.5 points per game and at that scoring pace would need 10 more games to eclipse the current Shore Conference career scoring mark of 2,302 held by Caldwell.

There is, however, a catch. Antoine is nearly 200 points ahead of Higgins at the moment and is on pace to break the record sometime next week while playing on a team that figures to make it to the Shore Conference Tournament championship game and, potentially, the Tournament of Champions final. Higgins likely won't have that many games to add to his career mark, but with six games left before the Shore Conference Tournament and the opportunity to pick up games in the event that the Lions miss the tournament or are eliminated early, he will have a chance to make a run at 2,300 points.

That being the case, there exists a real possibility that Antoine and Higgins - teammates on St. Mary's of Middletown during middle school - could wind up the top two scorers in Shore Conference history by the end of the season.

"Me and Bryan are really good friends - we went to St. Mary's together and we talk to each other on almost a daily basis," Higgins said. "It's really surreal to have two players like that score 2,000 in the same year. Eight people have done it and now we've got two in one season? That's crazy."

 

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