By BRIAN CUNNIFF
NORTH WILDWOOD – Freshmen really shouldn’t be making plays to win big local rivalry games.
Jamir McNeil is no ordinary freshman, however.
The 6-0 guard’s layup with six seconds to go broke a late tie and finished off an impressive comeback by the Middle Township High School boys basketball team and McNeil’s own scintillating performance in a 53-51 victory over Wildwood Catholic Academy Tuesday evening.
“He’s super confident,” Middle coach LaMarr Greer said of McNeil. “He’s amazing. We just want him to work hard every day. He has goals to reach. We want him to work hard and develop good habits so we can help get him to those goals.”
McNeil’s basket came off a feed from teammate Michael Zarfati after Zarfati stole a Wildwood Catholic in-bounds pass with 11 seconds to go.
“I just knew as soon as we got the steal and I got the ball that I had to go lay it up and win the game,” McNeil said. “It was a great steal. When he passed it up to me I had to go and win it.”
Wildwood Catholic nearly snatched back the victory but a desperation three-point attempt by Azmir Kates bounced off the front of the rim as the buzzer sounded.
Middle rallied from a nine-point second-half deficit to get the win.
Trailing by five with four minutes to go, McNeil made a layup after a steal by teammate Gavin Aftanis one possession before Anthony Trombetta’s three-pointer with 3:15 to go tied the score at 51-51.
Both teams turned the ball over on subsequent long possessions, setting the stage for the final sequence. After Wildwood Catholic took a timeout with 11.9 seconds to go, Zarfati stole the in-bounds pass in the top of the lane and quickly passed ahead to McNeil, who finished over a Wildwood Catholic defender.
McNeil posted a game-high 21 points.
“This is how it’s supposed to be,” Greer said. “You look at all the great rivalries – Duke versus North Carolina, Florida State-Florida – all those games like that, you love to play in them. These are the kind of games that are going to help our young team grow.”
Middle (2-0) held Wildwood Catholic (1-2) to one field goal and only four points in the fourth quarter.
McNeil’s late basket gave Middle its first lead since midway through the first quarter.
“Our big thing is, 32 minutes,” Greer said. “We have to wear on people. We have to play 32 minutes. The kids stuck with it. I’m proud of them. They need games like this to grow.”
Middle, which opened the season with a win over Cape May Tech Friday, gets another local rivalry game Thursday when it travels to Lower Cape May for a 5 p.m. start. The game will air live on 98.7 The Coast radio, with live video at CoastSportsToday.com.
“I’m weird like this but as big of a win as this is, we have to reset right away and go see Lower,” Greer said. “Lower is an amazing team and our kids will need to be ready. They’ll be up for the challenge and it’ll be another learning experience for us.”
Zarfati added nine points and four steals and Aftanis produced six points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots for Middle.
Justin Harper paced Wildwood Catholic with 17 points. Rashee Bell added 10 and Kates and Landen Hart each chipped in eight.
Middle’s victory snapped an eight-game Wildwood Catholic win streak over the Panthers. Middle had last beaten Wildwood Catholic on Jan. 27, 2017.