Boys Basketball – Neptune Pays Back Wall in Championship Rematch
WALL TWP. - It remains to be seen whether or not the MVP of the Super Bowl this Sunday will proclaim - as is tradition - that he is "going to Disneyland."
Neptune senior Sam Fagan offered a socially-distant alternative after his Scarlet Fliers boys basketball team won a big game to get into the win column for the first time in 2021.
He is going on his Xbox.
After finally vanquishing Wall - the No. 6 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and a squad full of players Fagan has grown up playing with and spent the past calendar year competing against - on Wednesday night, 67-64, Fagan and Neptune can breath a collective sigh of relief after getting their first win in a loaded 2021 schedule and celebrate beating Wall after three near misses in 2019-20.
Fagan said he planned to follow us his payback on the court with some virtual payback on his console.
"It definitely feels good to finally beat them and I'm going to tell them on Xbox later," Fagan said. "They let me hear it last year. We were 0-3 against them last year and I have been playing with those guys since third through eighth grade. I don't really like losing, and it's not any better against people I have known pretty much my whole life, so it feels good to get a win."
The last of those three losses last season ended Neptune's season just a bounce of the ball away from the program's first NJSIAA sectional championship since 2012. The two rivals met in the Central Jersey Group III championship game and Wall rallied to beat the Scarlet Fliers in overtime for its second straight sectional title.
Fagan finished with 12 points and six assists while junior Oneil Campbell led Neptune with a career-high 19 points, with 12 coming in a momentum-shifting second quarter and two big, go-ahead free throws with 2:24 left. Senior Andre Harris also scored 12 points, all of which came on four three-pointers, while junior Malik Fields pitched in eight.
Neptune fell behind, 26-16, in the first quarter as Wall junior Colin Ackerman and senior Pat Lacey relentlessly attacked the paint and finished near the rim against a shell-shocked Neptune defense. A three-pointer by Harris closed a high-scoring first to pull Neptune within seven points, calmed the Fliers heading to the bench and began the climb toward the lead.
"I told my dad (coach Joe Fagan) at the beginning of the game that I should be on Colin, because I know the game better, but he won't admit that," Fagan said, partially in jest. "I also told him that Oneil (6-foot-4) is a lengthy guy and he probably matches up with Pat better. It showed at the end of the game."
Campbell hit a three-pointer to give Neptune its first lead at 30-29 and later converted a three-point play in the final seconds of the first half to tie the game at 36-36 heading into halftime.
Fagan opened the third quarter with a go-ahead floater, Campbell scored another go-ahead layup off a find from junior Everett Cheavers, and Harris canned his third three-pointer to give Neptune its largest lead at 45-40.
Wall fought back to tie the game at 45-45 and went back in front, 49-48, on a drive by Ackerman, who finished with a game-high 26 points. Neptune came back with Fagan finding Cheavers for a go-ahead layup and Harris knocking down his fourth and final three to make it 53-49 early in the fourth.
Wall eventually tied the game at 55-55 with a drive by senior Tom Palluzzi and the two teams went on to trade free throws and one-point leads the rest of the way. Wall seized a 62-61 lead on a pair of free throws by Lacey with 1:24 left, but Fagan answered when he rebounded his own missed three and connected on a running bank shot to put Neptune in front, 63-62, with 52 seconds left.
Wall again got to the free-throw line to take the lead back, with Ackerman sinking two foul shots to make it 64-63 with 44.7 seconds left.
On the ensuing Neptune possession, Fagan missed a midrange jumper, but sophomore Mike Daniels wrestled away the rebound and flipped in the go-ahead putback as he was fouled. Daniels's free throw made the Neptune lead 66-64 with 29.4 seconds to go.
Neptune delivered a stop on defense and senior Bryson Byrd hit the first of two free throws with five seconds left. Byrd, however, missed the second, leaving Wall with four seconds to tie the game with a three-pointer following a timeout.
Ackerman got a shot off over Fagan, but his pull-up three came up short.
"Pat went two dribbles to his left, pulled up and I knew he was going to it but I'm 5-11 and Pat's 6-3 with a bigger wingspan," Fagan said. "If Pat would have shot that on me, he probably would have made it. Oneil was the difference there. Oneil is definitely the difference on defense."
On top of Ackerman's 26, Lacey dropped in 18 points for Wall, which relied completely on its four returning players from 2019-20 for scoring. Palluzzi and senior Logan Peters each added 10 points, giving the four returnees all 64 of Wall's points. Peters also added eight rebounds, five assists and two steals.
This week's two-game series between the two rivals is a crucial one for the prospects of each when it comes to the postseason. Each team plays in a Shore Conference pod that includes four ranked teams: Neptune, Wall, Manasquan and Ranney, with Manasquan and Ranney rating as the top two teams in the conference to open the year. With four games scheduled against perhaps the two best teams in the conference, both Wall and Neptune will have to thrive in their other games - including the two against one another.
Neptune opened the season with two losses to Ranney and got straightened out with Wednesday's win.
Wall, meanwhile, had its two games vs. Ocean canceled due to the Crimson Knights' school shutdown and Wednesday's game was their first game action of the season after losing their lone scrimmage as well. Wall will try to pay Neptune back on Thursday night in Neptune and is then scheduled to play four of its next five games against Ranney and Manasquan.
That schedule will make it difficult for either Wall or Neptune to crack into the top eight Shore Conference teams that will be selected by a seeding committee at the end of the season to compete for a de facto Shore Conference championship. Every team in the conference will be placed into an eight-team tournament pod (with one seven-team tournament pod) and the pod including the top eight ranked teams will be for the championship.
"(Joe Fagan) was saying we can't go 0-3," Sam Fagan said. "I don't know how my teammates felt but I didn't feel any extra pressure going into this week. We have to win tomorrow if we want to be in any kind of contention for anything. I think the rest of the games give us plenty of chances to make our case."
Playing against a pod that includes six built-in games against ranked opponents - and in Neptune's case, an additional scheduled game against No. 3 Marlboro - might make the regular-season even tougher than the postseason, so Fagan and his teammates are trying to embrace the challenge that is in front of them - especially with the specter of COVID-19 continuing to threaten two-week shutdowns of entire programs.
"When we found out the season was going to be shortened, a kid on Ocean said to me 'Look at the pod we got put into. You guys are going to get (beat) up.' I was like, 'Eh, I don't know.' I like our team and we like going out and playing against teams like this. You look at a Ranney and they have nine or 10 guys playing high-level AAU basketball. You're not going to see that very often so if you're only going to have 10 games or whatever we get, it might as well be against the best."