Plainfield rallies past Neptune
Plainfield had a good sense that scrappy Neptune would try to land the first punch Saturday night against the defending state champion.
It just didn't expect it to use both fists.
Plainfield fell behind by 12 points with just over two minutes to play in the first half, but eventually settled into its customary balanced, defensive-minded game to beat Neptune, 58-48, for the NJSIAA/ShopRite Group 3 championship before a capacity crowd at the Pine Belt Arena in Toms River.
"We knew they were going to punch first and generally we're ready for punches," Plainfield head coach Jeff Lubreski said. "But as we said before the game, there's a lot of emotion in championship games and they certainly came out with their highest level at the beginning.
"And it was incumbent on us in the second half to bring our emotion in that half, and we did that."
Senior forward Diijon Allen-Jordan scored 17 points and took down eight rebounds and Yale-bound senior forward Justin Sears struck for 11 points (eight in the second half), 17 rebounds and nine blocks as the Cardinals, No. 5 in the MSG Varsity Top 15, won back-to-back titles for the first time, and claimed their fourth state crown overall.
Sekou Harris popped in 10 of his 14 points and Jahmal Lane added eight of his 13 to help Plainfield rally from a 26-21 halftime deficit.
Plainfield (28-3) moves on the Tournament of Champions, which is seeded Sunday night following the last of the four group championship games slated for the Rutgers Athletic Center. The Cardinals lost to St. Anthony last year in the T of C final.
"It feels good," Sears said of a second state title," but our goal is the T of C. Last year we felt it was just icing on the cake. We want to take it this year."
That possibility seemed in jeopardy as Neptune blitzed Plainfield with its pressure defense and ratcheted up the transition game to move in front, 12-8, after one quarter and build a 26-14 lead with 2:07 to go in the half. Versatile junior guard Keith Kirkwood netted 10 of his 15 points in the first half for the Scarlet Fliers (24-7) and senior guards Ikie Calderon and Jaheem Woods each scored six in the half and closed with 14 and 13 points, respectively.
"I was hoping that the way we play defense would get to them a little bit and get some turnovers, and that's really what happened," Neptune head coach Ken O'Donnell said. "We just got a little sloppy when we had a 10-point lead. We gave them a couple baskets at the end that really hurt us."
Plainfield ran off seven straight points in the final 1:59 of the half, starting with a fast break layup by Harris and followed a thunderous dunk by Allen-Jordan off a feed from Harris and a three-point play from Lane to cut the gap to 26-21.
"That was very important," Lubreski said. "That gave us the momentum and the belief at halftime that we should come out and try to sustain that for the second 16. That run was because of our ability to get the ball inside."
Plainfield was expected to exercise some degree of dominance inside with both its size advantage and vast experience up front. And Neptune was certainly subjected to that force--like the five blocks Sears racked up in the first quarter. But the Scarlet Fliers would simply shrug off each failure and try again until they succeeded.
That kind of bold insistence, that imposition of will was something Plainfield had not seen a lot of during the state tournament.
"We've been beating teams by an average of 29 points, so we thought Neptune would just roll over," Sears said. "So, hats off to them because they came out to play. Fortunately, their energy and emotion couldn't last the whole game and our experience helped us out in the end."
Not just the end. Sears and Harris, the team's leading scorers, struggled to find their games in the opening half, but Allen-Jordan was doing his best to keep things from spinning out of control. He sank nine points in the first half, and did most of that scoring high above the rim.
"I just play my game as hard as I can for the full 32 minutes," Allen-Jordan said. "When I'm having a bad game, they have good games. We all pick each other up."
Lane scored five points and Allen-Jordan added four in the third quarter as Plainfield moved to within 35-34. The Cardinals opened the fourth with an 8-2 run (Allen-Jordan had four) for a 42-37 lead, but Woods drove hard into the lane to trigger a 6-0 run for a 43-42 Neptune advantage with 3:45 to play.
Harris hit two free throws with 3:27 left and Taylor Plummer hit one of two 16 seconds later for a 45-43 lead. Woods sank one of two from the line to pull Neptune to within one with 2:27 to play, but Plainfield answered with a basket underneath by Sears and two free throws by Harris for a 49-44 lead with 1:55 remaining.
Mike Kinney covers boys basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS