Eva Hart is not a considered one of the primary scorers in the Manasquan system yet she probably tops the Warriors in making the points that carry the most weight.
We’re not talking buzzer-beating buckets or late-game free throws, although the junior guard is more than capable of both. This is about her standing as the voice of reason in an emotionally-charged lineup, the ground that brings teammates down to earth when they’re most vulnerable.
When the 11-point lead Manasquan built in the third quarter was whittled away to just two thanks to the chaotic tempo Neptune was promoting through its vaunted press, Hart summoned her troops for some timely advice. But, beyond her encouraging words, she also supplied some tangible items.
Hart grabbed a late rebound and stuck a pair of greatly-needed free throws in the final seconds that ended a scoreless spell and propelled eighth-seeded Manasquan to a 46-41 victory over ninth-seeded Neptune on Thursday in the first round of the Shore Conference Tournament in Manasquan.
“It’s important to have a good balance,” Manasquan coach Lisa Kukoda noted. “It’s good to have enthusiasm and to also have that person that’s going to huddle everybody together at a crucial moment. Eva does that. And, she does it during the game too, whether it’s getting the ball up the court against the press or knocking down those free throws.”
“We all get hectic, even me. I’m a culprit,” Hart said. “But, we can calm each other down. When someone turns a ball over, the heads go down. That’s where it starts and it can become contagious and needs to be stopped.”
The nine-point lead it built in the first half erased by Neptune, No. 15 in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15, which forged a 25-25 on a three-point play from Ivy Harrington less than two minutes into the third, ninth-ranked Manasquan re-established a bigger cushion.
Sophomore guard Courtney Hagaman buried a 3-pointer and sliced to the basket to finish a layup, both buckets off feeds from junior forward Sam Sullivan. Hagaman nailed another triple and Sullivan converted two foul shots before junior reserve Bridget Ford knocked down a jumper behind the arc to cap a 13-2 burst that staked Manasquan to a 38-27 advantage.
However, layups from junior forward Iyonna Crenshaw, senior guard Desiree Moss and sophomore guard Miesha Bacon drew Neptune within 38-33 heading to the fourth.
Senior forward Amanda Hagaman completed a three-point play and Sullivan deposited a putback to push Manasquan’s lead up to 43-33 in the first 53 seconds of the final period. That bucket proved to be the final field goal of the evening for the Warriors.
Neptune induced five consecutive turnovers in closing the gap to 43-41 with 2:53 still left to play. Crenshaw, who paced the Scarlet Fliers with 14 points and 11 rebounds, accounted for four points during the 8-0 run.
Yet, Neptune didn’t maximize its opportunity to do even more damage, shooting 3 for 14 from the floor over the last quarter and converting only 2 of 6 attempts at the line.
“The bottom line is look at our foul shooting,” said Neptune coach John Brown, referring to the Scarlet Fliers’ going 10 for 21 overall from the charity stripe. “You’ve gotta make foul shots. They determine ballgames. That first half, we didn’t come ready to play. We were just sleepwalking out there. It shouldn’t take three quarters to get ready to play basketball in a Shore Conference Tournament. We didn’t deserve to win the game.”
Hart pulled down a defensive rebound, drew a foul and hit two foul shots with 11.8 showing to extend the lead to 45-41 to end a scoreless spell that lasted 5:56 and Courtney Hagaman (nine points) tacked on another free throw to cap the triumph.
Manasquan managed to take a 25-21 lead into halftime despite the limited availability of Amanda Hagaman. The UMBC recruit picked up two fouls within the first 59 seconds of the contest.
“Everything becomes that much harder,” said Hagaman, who had seven points and cleared six of her nine rebounds in the second half. “I can’t be as aggressive. It takes a toll on everyone.”
Sullivan made up for the absence of her frontcourt partner, dropping in 13 of her game-high 17 points in the first half. She also finished with 14 rebounds and five assists.
“I think because we are an emotional team that defines us,” Sullivan said. “In the fourth quarter, we wanted it. Amanda was down, so we wanted to pick her up. I don’t think being emotional isn’t that bad”
Neptune (17-5), which had its eight-game winning streak snapped, forced Manasquan into 25 turnovers, 15 of which came in the second half to spur its two comebacks. Moss led the swarming defense by reaping seven of the 18 steals the Scarlet Fliers committed.
Conversely, Manasquan proved impossible to contain under the boards, where it fashioned a sizable 41-22 rebounding.
Manasquan advanced to Saturday’s quarterfinal round where it will meet top-ranked Red Bank Catholic for a third time this season in an 11 a.m. matchup. RBC downed Manasquan by counts of 40-26 and 39-27 during the regular season.
Red Bank Catholic 57, Jackson 41
Caroline Corcoran and Grace Fallon netted 12 each and Alex Barazotti chipped in with 10 for top-seeded and fourth-ranked Red Bank Catholic (21-1).
Rumson 47, Middletown North 34
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs (16-7), ranked 10th, were powered by sophomore swing Grace Stant, who accumulated 19 points and 19 rebounds.
Middletown South 38, Freehold Boro 30
Kierra Gannon and Christiana Rutkowski scored 10 apiece for fourth-seeded and eight-ranked Middletown South (18-2).
Point Pleasant Boro 75, St. Rose 67
Senior guard Kelly Hughes pumped in 33 points for third-seeded and third-ranked Point Pleasant Boro (22-1), which needed overtime to outlast 14th-seeded St. Rose.
Holmdel 60, Marlboro 38
Senior guard Tara Inman clicked for 17 points to lead four players in double figures for sixth-seeded and 13th-ranked Holmdel (15-7). Morgan Graziano finished with 16 points, Cassidy Fontana scored 15 and Tori Cardaci ended with 10.
Point Pleasant Beach 88, Msgr. Donovan 61
Junior point guard Katelynn Flaherty pumped in 37 points and Marina Mabrey collected 30 points and 11 rebounds for the seventh-seeded and sixth-ranked Point Pleasant Beach (20-0), which outscored 10th-seeded Msgr. Donovan (18-3), 53-18, in the second half.
St. John Vianney 61, Matawan 47
Katie Beriont and Kelly Campbell each deposited 14 points to pace second-seeded and seventh-ranked St. John Vianney (14-9). Emily Uribe finished with 13 points, including 11 before intermission, and Lyndsay Rowe added 10 for the Lady Lancers. Montana Bertoli led 18th-seeded Matawan (13-8) with 14 points.
Gregg Lerner covers girls basketball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner