Boys Basketball – Second-Half Surge Powers Keyport Past Point Beach and Into First-Place Tie
KEYPORT -- A year ago, a once-in-a-generation class at Keyport led the Red Raiders boys basketball team to the cusp of the program's first NJSIAA sectional championship in 18 years.
While Keyport came up short -- and excruciatingly so -- of winning that long-awaited follow-up championship to the 2003-04 Central Jersey Group I title, the legacy of Class of 2022 could be its success in establishing a new bar for a program that finds itself rounding into a state-tournament contender again in 2023.
On Tuesday night, in its home gym, Keyport turned in a statement performance with its 67-59 win over Point Pleasant Beach, which pulls the Red Raiders into a tie in the Shore Conference Class B Central division race and serves as a reminder that Keyport will remain a player in Central Jersey Group I again in late February.
Junior Mike Ford -- one of three new starters for Keyport this season who played at junior varsity level last season -- scored 16 of his game-high 24 points in the first half to spark an awakening for the Red Raiders after they had quickly fallen into a 23-7 hole during the first quarter.
"We had the positive matchup with (Ford)," Recco said. "We wanted to feed him the ball. They really couldn't keep him in front, so that was the mismatch. We said 'Get the ball to Mike' and we were setting screens for him to get him opportunities. He stepped up today. It was an impressive performance."
Point Beach held second-quarter leads of 28-13 and 33-19 before closing the first half with a transition basket by freshman Jacob Edgecomb that gave the visitors a 38-26 lead at the intermission.
"They were shooting very well and we weren't," Recco said. "I knew we could turn it on. We just had to stay in it and chip away. The tempo started to pick up and we play better with up-and-down tempo and I kind of let them go with it in the second quarter."
By the end of the third quarter, Keyport had rallied to tie the game, sparked Ford and seniors Max Judson and Terrek Mimes. Both Judson and Mimes -- starters at different points for Keyport a season ago and key contributors throughout the 2021-22 campaign -- finished with 18 points and double-digit rebounds, with Judson scored 10 of his points in Keyport's 18-6 run during the length of the third quarter. Mimes, meanwhile, tied the game with a drive to the basket with a minute to go -- the only time the game was tied other than 0-0.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Ford scored on another drive to the basket to give Keyport its first lead since 1-0. When Judson banked in a short jumper with six minutes left, Keyport had completed a 12-0 run that put the Red Raiders on top, 54-46.
The Red Raiders turned a 12-point halftime deficit into a 12-point lead, 61-49, with three minutes left in the game. Point Beach, however, mounted a last-ditch effort that cut the Keyport lead to 61-59 with 1:30 left -- a 10-0 run for the Garnet Gulls in the span of only 1:30.
Point Beach had a chance to tie the game on its next possession, but Keyport got a stop with a travelling call in the lane. From there, the Red Raiders made 6-of-7 free throws to close out the game.
Senior Kevin Burns led Point Beach with 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists and Edgecomb added 11 points in the loss. Burns, who opened the season with back-to-back triple-doubles -- filled up the stat sheet again on Tuesday, but Keyport kept him quieter in the second half by successfully denying him the ball and forcing him to give it up early on a majority of possessions. Burns went into halftime with 11 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
"He's phenomenal," Recco said of Burns. "We said if he gives it up, we don't want him getting it back. He is going to give it up at some point and when he does, we don't want him getting it back. We took turns on him: Mike (Ford) was on him, Terrek had a few possession on him, (sophomore) Andrei (Matthews) came off the bench and gave him a different look. It was a team effort on him."
Point Beach defeated Keyport, 44-41, on Jan. 5 in Point Pleasant and, barring an upset loss by either team, the two rivals are trending toward a Class B Central co-championship. After winning the public division championship in 2021-22, a co-title would be a noteworthy follow-up for Keyport, especially considering the absence of 6-foot-9 sophomore standout Nas Hart.
Hart suffered a hip flexor injury in Keyport's second game of the season -- a nine-point loss to Monmouth Regional -- and has not played since. Even without the 6-9 game-changer, Keyport's only other loss in addition to the ones vs. Monmouth and Keyport was to St. Rose, the No. 2 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and a currently the No. 12 team in the state.
"We're battling through it," Recco said. "Other guys are getting time and good experience. We made it all the way to the sectional final last year so we have that experience. We're right there with all the other teams in Central Jersey Group I. If we can get Nas back healthy, we've got something."
Keyport and Point Beach are two of six teams bunched at the top of the current power-points rankings in Central Jersey Group I, the measure that will determine the seeding for the CJ I playoffs in the last week of February. There is still some wiggle-room with which Keyport can earn a top seed and with Hart making his way back to a team finding its way even without him, the Red Raiders are starting to believe they can finish the job that the 2022 class started.