Boys Basketball – Neptune Holds Off Manalapan Rally to Advance to Shore Conference Tournament Quarterfinals
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MANALAPAN – The Neptune boys basketball team’s first 10 games of the season at one point represented a nightmare start to both the 2014-15 campaign and to first-year coach Joe Fagan’s tenure as the man in charge of the Scarlet Fliers.
Over the last month, and particularly in Neptune’s Shore Conference Tournament Round-of-16 game at seventh-seeded Manalapan, those 10 games have proved to be a necessary step for the Scarlet Fliers to both find themselves and toughen them up for games like the one they had to play on Thursday.
Neptune – the No. 10 seed in the Shore Conference Tournament – stormed out to a 20-point first-half lead and held off a furious comeback by the Braves to win, 60-52, and advance to the SCT quarterfinals Sunday at 11 a.m. against No. 15 Point Pleasant Beach at Brookdale College.
“Had we not gone through the stuff we’d gone through earlier in the year and overcame together, it would never had happened for us tonight,” Fagan said. “I’d get on guys earlier in the year and they’d collapse. They’d start yelling at each other and that happened. A couple guys have stepped up as leaders and said, ‘Let’s stay together, this is how we win.’ You saw that in the fourth quarter.”
Sophomore swingman Barry Brown scored a team-high 21 points, including 16 in the first half to help the Scarlet Fliers build a 34-14 lead midway through the second quarter. Brown scored 11 points during a 19-0 run that spanned less than three minutes of the second quarter and gave the Fliers a commanding 32-12 lead with 4:34 left in the quarter.
“Coach (Fagan) told us they were going to make a run and we just had to stay positive,” senior forward Micah Kerr said. “They have a good team, and they fed off the home crowd. We just had to execute down the stretch.”
Manalapan cut the Neptune lead to 11 late in the second quarter and trailed by 13 going into the second half. Neptune led by as many as 16 points in the third quarter, but Manalapan again rallied, eventually pulling within one point on three separate occasions during the last four minutes of the game.
Brown helped put the game away with a double-clutch lay-up to put Neptune ahead, 57-52, with 54 seconds left. Kerry Kirkwood made a driving basket while drawing the foul to stretch the Neptune lead to 53-50 with 3:09 left to play. After Kyle Mullen scored in the post to pull Manalapan within one again, Sean McMillan found a clear lane to the rim and took it for a lay-up and a 55-52 Neptune lead with 1:30 left.
Keishawn Kirkwood made three of his four free-throw attempts in the final 40 seconds to close out the game.
“We had to play with more patience on offense,” Keishawn Kirkwood said. “We rushed things too much and let them back in the game, so we tried to slow down, find the open man and look to drive to the basket.”
Mullen led Manalapan with a game-high 26 points on 10-for-21 shooting from the floor and also grabbed six rebounds. Mullen scored 17 of his points in the first half and scored three baskets in the fourth quarter to key the Manalapan rally.
“It’s rare that you see a really good post player at the college level anymore and you almost never see them at the high school level,” Fagan said. “We really haven’t done a lot of work defending a post player, and I told the guys when we’ve worked on it that it was going to kill us if we had to play somebody like that this year.
“We started to adjust a little better in the second half and were able to take away some of his angles. He’s obviously a tremendous athlete and he’s a great football player, but you can tell he’s got basketball in his blood. He has a really good feel for things out there.”
Kirkwood finished with 13 points, while McMillan added 10 off the bench. Kerry Kirkwood chipped in eight points, while Kerr posted eight points and 10 rebounds to go with a large share of the work against Mullen in the paint.
“It was a battle trying to stop him,” said Kerr, who was one of three Neptune defenders tasked with trying to guard the Yale football recruit on the block. “He is a tough athlete, and we were talking during the game about football, but he’s a great basketball player, too.”
Since beginning the season 3-7, Neptune is 11-2 over its last 13 games and has lost only twice by double-figure margins.
“We had to be mentally prepared to go through what we went through,” Kerr said. “Coach told us that it wasn’t going to be easy and if we were going to start winning, we had to come together as a team to weather the storm.”
Neptune will play another road victor in the quarterfinals at Brookdale after Point Beach knocked off No. 2 Lakewood, 67-63. The Scarlet Fliers were the lone Shore Conference team to beat Lakewood before Point Beach eliminated the Piners from the tournament on Thursday.
“I haven’t looked ahead at the brackets too much so we’ll get together in practice and talk about who we’re playing now that we’re there,” Fagan said. “In these tournament settings, it just doesn’t make sense to start thinking about who you could be playing when if you lose, you don’t have a game anyway. For us, we just focus all of our attention on the next game.”
Neptune reached the quarterfinals last year, where it lost to eventual tournament runner-up Christian Brothers Academy.
“We’re more mature this year,” Kerr said. “We’ve been through the environment already, and we’re ready to handle whatever comes at us this time.”
Neptune 60, Manalapan 52
Neptune (60): Kerry Kirkwood 3 1-5 8, Keishawn Kirkwood 3 6-7 13, Micah Kerr 4 0-0 8, Marcque Ellington 0 0-2 0, Barry Brown 7 4-5 21, Sean McMillan 5 0-1 10, Jared Kimbrough 0 0-1 0. Totals: 22 11-21 60
Three-pointers: Kerry Kirkwood, Keishawn Kirkwood, Brown 3
Fouled Out: Ellington
Manalapan (52): Mike Venezia 1 2-2 5, Gerard Hodge-Rocourt 3 2-3 8, Kyle Mullen 10 6-12 26, Brian Conforth 1 3-4 5, Zach Misischia 1 3-4 5, Anthony Schimbeno 1 0-0 3, Scott Scherer 0 0-0 0. Totals: 17 16-26 52
Three-pointers: Venezia, Schimbeno