Boys Basketball – Wall Rallies to Win Back-to-Back CJ 3 Titles in Dramatic Fashion
WALL TWP. - The Wall High School gymnasium has been a happy home for the Crimson Knights and a house of horrors for opponents during the 2019-20 season, but between its confident team and accompanying, raucous student section that made the 5.6-mile drive Monday night, Neptune's team came as close to neutralizing it as any team has all year.
Then, in the final 40 seconds of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III championship game, those friendly home bounces finally showed up for the top seed and defending sectional champions.
Senior Quinn Calabrese banked in a momentum-shifting three-pointer, junior Tom Palluzi hit the game-tying floater with 11 seconds left and Wall took over the game in overtime to beat seventh-seeded Neptune, 56-51, and capture the program's second straight sectional championship.
PHOTO GALLERY: Neptune at Wall CJ III Final by Paula Lopez
"For a town that was never really good at basketball just to show all the younger kids that if you work hard, you can compete in Shore Conference basketball at Wall High School - it's just great," Calabrese said. "We know those guys (at Neptune), we grew up playing with (junior guard) Sam (Fagan), so it was great to compete against them, come out with a win and put Wall basketball on the map."
Wall's win in its home finale capped a 14-0 season for Wall on its home floor, which matches the Crimson Knights' record within the Shore Conference Class B North this season.
"I'm just so proud of these guys," said head coach Bob Klatt, who took over before last season and has now won two sectional titles in two tries as Wall's head varsity basketball coach. "From day one it's been, 'Can you get back (to the championship)?' We've been saying we're not defending anything because you can't take last year with you to this year, but everybody still told us we should get here and it's not guaranteed. Nothing is ever guaranteed."
"It helped that we played the schedule we played, that we played in this game last year, that we have been in this environment before," junior Pat Lacey said. "This is one of the craziest gyms I have ever played in. That all helped - all our experience and the tight games we have been in."
Two of those B North wins came over Neptune and the Scarlet Fliers looked poised to deal the host Crimson Knights its first defeat against a division opponent this year, as well as its first home loss. Senior Saadiq Armstead scored on a drive to the rim after a steal by classmate Azmere Wilson to make the score 45-40 and Neptune took over possession after a missed three-pointer by junior Logan Peters.
The Scarlet Fliers attempted to run clock, but turned the ball over with just under a minute to play, although still in good shape, with a 45-40 lead.
"We are all really good friends off the court, so we just didn't want our season to be over," Lacey said. "We were all huddling up and saying, 'Just give it your all for however long this game may take. It ended up taking more than 45 seconds."
Calabrese quickly made things interesting by pulling up from 23 feet and banking in a straight-on three-pointer to chop the Neptune lead to two with 38 seconds left. Neptune senior Makai Suit then missed the front-end of a 1-and-1 with 27 seconds left to give Wall a chance to tie the game.
"I saw it in his eyes before that: career is over and everything else," Klatt said of Calabrese. "And then somebody makes a play. That's how it has been for us all year and it's somebody different every single night."
"We were definitely a little nervous but I don't think at any point we got down on ourselves," Calabrese said. "We just stayed confident and we knew anything could happen, and it did."
On the other end, Wall worked the ball to Palluzzi, its sixth man who has taken to the role after starting as a sophomore a year ago. Palluzzi saw daylight, dribbled into the lane, spun to his left and put up a floater from the edge of the paint. The ball hit the back rim, bounced into the air and dropped through to tie the game with 11 seconds remaining.
"Nobody expects Tom to make that shot," Klatt said. "Everybody is thinking it's Quinn, it's Lacey or Colin. And that's what we are - anybody can step up on any single night and Tom had a great night tonight.
"He was a starter last year and he has accepted this new role," Klatt said. "Him and (senior Michael) Caputo basically switched. Last year, Caputo was the guy off the bench."
Neptune raced up the floor and took a timeout with 2.3 seconds left to set up a final play, but junior Sam Fagan's fadeaway came up well short.
"The saying is 'You've got to be lucky and good to win,'" Lacey said. "It definitely took some luck tonight. Shots not falling is part of basketball, so you have to overcome it and keep your head. We missed a few early, but we ended up doing that."
"We went back to the bench and said, 'They had their shot. Now, this is our game," Calabrese said. "We went out and got it done. We got free throws on the first possession and went from there."
Wall carried its momentum from the end of regulation into overtime and scored seven unanswered to start the extra period - making its overall run 12-0. Peters hit a free throw to open the overtime scoring, stole the ball on the other end and flung a full-court pass to sophomore Colin Ackerman, who laid it up and in for a 48-45 lead.
From there, Wall put the game away at the free-throw line and with the help of its defense. The Crimson Knights shot 9-for-16 from the line in overtime but made up for the misses by forcing Neptune into three turnovers in its first four possessions.
"We say it all the time in practice: 'Defense wins championships, offense puts butts in the seats,'" Klatt said. "They really buy into the defense and want to lock somebody up."
Wall rode a significant advantage at the free-throw line, going 17-for-29 to Neptune's 2-for-5, although the disparity in attempts was less pronounced before overtime (13-to-5), when Neptune spent most of the quarter intentionally sending Wall to the line.
Calabrese finished with a game-high 16 points, 13 of which came after halftime. Ackerman and Lacey carried the offense in the first half, with Ackerman scoring eight of his 13 and Lacey seven of his 12 in the first half, which saw Wall outscore Neptune, 25-21. Peters also pitched in eight points and 11 rebounds for Wall.
After falling into an early 7-2 hole, Wall rattled off a 12-2 run to take control of the game and did not trail again until the middle of the third quarter. Neptune answered with a 12-2 run of its own that swung a 29-23 deficit into a 35-31 lead. After Wall pulled even at 35-35, Fagan converted a drive to the basket that gave Neptune a two-point lead - one it would not give up until Palluzzi's floater in the final seconds.
Friday's loss adds another chapter to Neptune's recent history of crushingly-close NJSIAA Tournament losses in recent years. Last year, it was Burlington Township at home in the sectional semifinals and one year earlier on the road vs. Moorestown in the same round.
"Another night where we just emptied our tanks and played our asses off," Neptune coach Joe Fagan said. "I could never fault how hard the kids play. The last thing on the board before we left the locker room was, 'The smarter team wins.' I thought we were pretty smart for most of the game and then we weren't very smart with (under a minute) to go.
"The travel hurt and then, we gave up too much space to Quinn on the three. He didn't have a transition three all game and we weren't going to let him have his shot. He got it, he banked it in, and good for him."
Armstead led Neptune with 16 points, eight rebounds and four steals while coming off the bench. Senior Makai Suit scored 10 of his 14 points in the first half to back up Armstead's effort.
Lacey drew the assignment of guarding Sam Fagan when Wall was in its man-to-man defense, which Wall ditched for a 1-3-1 zone for most of the fourth quarter. Fagan - who scored 40 points in the quarterfinal win over Somerville - finished with six points on 3-for-13 shooting Monday night.
"We put our best defender on Sam and Pat did a great job staying with him for 36 minutes," Calabrese said. "Credit to Pat, credit to our help defense for keeping him contained."
Wall's second consecutive Central Group III championship earns the Crimson Knights a chance at redemption in the Group III semifinal Wednesday night at Brick Memorial, where Wall will take on South Jersey champion Timber Creek at 7 p.m.
Last year, after a competitive first half, Moorestown ran Wall out of the gym during the second half en route to a 64-44 win. Moorestown went on to lose to Ranney in the Tournament of Champion semifinals, while Wall regrouped for 2020 with just one starter graduating.
On Wednesday, it will be Wall that returns with the experience of coming up one win shy of reaching the state finals at the RAC in Piscataway and just as they drew on their experience throughout their 14-0 season in B North and run through Central Jersey III, the Knights will hope to do the same against the Chargers at Brick Memorial.
"We'll start watching film - coaches and players - tonight and come to practice (Tuesday) ready to go," Calabrese said. "We want to keep going."
Wall 56, Neptune 51 (OT)
Neptune (51): Sam Fagan 3 0-0 6, Makai Suit 6 0-2 14, Everett Cheavers 1 0-0 2, O'Neil Campbell 1 0-0 3, Daniel Charles 0 0-0 0, Saadiq Armstead 7 2-3 16, Sean Young 0 0-0 0, Malik Fields 1 0-0 2, Azmere Wilson 1 0-0 3, Sahmad Armstead 1 0-0 2, Jett Tinik 0 0-0 0, Andre Harris 1 0-0 3. Totals: 17 2-5 51
Three-pointers: Suit 2, Campbell, Wilson, Harris
Wall (56): Colin Ackerman 4 3-6 13, Pat Lacey 4 3-4 12, Logan Peters 2 4-8 8, Michael Caputo 1 3-3 5, Quinn Calabrese 5 4-8 16, Tom Palluzzi 1 0-0 2. Totals: 17 17-29 56
Three-pointers: Ackerman 2, Calabrese 2