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Chris Masse on boys basketball: Jersey Shore can be a dangerous team in Class AAAA

Jersey Shore entered as the season as a potential District 4 Class AAAA title contender. Halfway through the season the Bulldogs are 4-7.

And yet they remain a championship contender.

Yes, the record is not what Jersey Shore wants but the pieces are there. They are starting to fit as well and Jersey Shore has won its last two games. In a wide-open district which features no dominant team this season, optimism remains high.

“Everyone is balanced. Teams are beating other teams and then losing to teams who those teams beat,” forward Damian Williams said after scoring 12 points in a 49-42 win against Selinsgrove. “It gives us the motivation and intensity to keep going strong.”

Williams is one of four starters back from last year’s team which reached the district quarterfinals. He also is one of three players averaging more than nine points per game. Jersey Shore features a quality blend of athletic ability, quickness, size, depth and shooters. That is what had many labeling it a contender in the preseason.

That is why so many still do. It’s not like Jersey Shore was getting blown out in its losses. Four of those seven defeats were by seven points or fewer and two came after holding double-digit leads. That included being up 13 two weeks ago at Shikellamy before losing, 53-51.

Changing the mindset has been crucial and it appears Jersey Shore is clearing that hurdle. South Williamsport and Selinsgrove pushed it hard in these last two contests, but Jersey Shore maintained its leads both times, held them off and gathered more confidence. The Bulldogs also erased a 17-point halftime deficit against defending District 4 Class AA champion Wyalusing at the Hughesville Christmas Tournament.

“I felt like when we were in that real bad streak we’d go in at the half and be like, ‘How are we going to lose this?’ That was our mentality,” Jersey Shore coach Scott Munro said. “I said at halftime (against Selinsgrove) that we have to turn that around and say, ‘Ok, how many are we going to win by?’ When somebody is down, keep them down. That has to be the mentality instead of ‘Oh no I can’t touch the ball, Oh no I can’t miss a shot.'”

Jersey Shore has started doing that and looks as dangerous as any team in this evenly-matched Class AAAA field. The Bulldogs held second-half leads against defending champion Danville (7-2) and runner-up Mifflinburg (7-2) as well as defending District 4-6 Class AAAAA champion Shikellamy. It is a shot here, a defensive assignment missed there that made the difference. All those things are fixable.

Jersey Shore knows it, too. That’s the most important thing. This team still believes.

“We were all down and we finally got out of it. We’re doing it the right way,” Damian McAllister said after a 14-point, 8-rebound performance against Selinsgrove. “We lost a lot of games, close ones that we shouldn’t have lost. Realistically, we should be way above our record. We’re all working together now and we’re right there with everyone else.”

“We sort of struggled earlier in the year. We weren’t clicking as a team like we did last year,” Williams said. “It feels like that’s starting to fall into place and it feels like we’re starting to play like we’re capable of.”

And that is why Jersey Shore can not be discounted. The early struggles may cost Jersey Shore a high seed come playoff time but seeds really do not matter this season. Eight teams likely will qualify and right now Jersey Shore is No. 8. In years past the gap between the top and No. 8 seeds often was Grand Canyon-like. This season it is so small a pin might have trouble getting through.

Jersey Shore did not like it’s start this season but that’s over. The Bulldogs control their future and it’s starting to look brighter and brighter.

“Other years we’ve gone in as 7 or 8 and I thought we really don’t have a good crack at it, but this year, the kids and I think we can do something,” Munro said. “Sure we hit a rut and we started poorly and we shouldn’t have done that, but the saving grace this year is it’s wide open. We still have a shot no matter where we finish as long as we get in.”

“Things are definitely coming together between us,” McAllister said. “We’ve been busting our behinds at practice every day. We’re looking to make a run this year.”

1,000-POINT CLUB: Isaiah Niemczyk became Canton’s first all-state player of the 2000s last March. Last Monday, he became the program’s first 1,000-point scorer since 2013. Niemczyk keeps etching his name in school history and scored his 1,000th career point in a 66-36 win against Montgomery. The senior guard continued his big week with strong performances in victories against defending District 4 Class AA champion Wyalusing and Northeast Bradford, averaging 23 points in all three wins.

Niemczyk has topped 20 points in five straight games, but there is a whole lot more to his game than just scoring. A versatile 6-foot-5 swingman, Niemczyk consistently stuffs the stat sheet and will become part of the first senior class in program history to reach districts all four years there. A three-year starter and four-year contributor, Niemczyk is averaging 21 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.2 steals per game, helping the Warriors move to the top of the District 4 Class AA power rankings.

PUTBACKS: South Williamsport displayed strong character Friday at Northwest, rallying from 10 down late in the third quarter and winning, 47-44 in overtime. The Mounties (5-5) also won a close game at Sullivan County two nights earlier and handed Northwest its first league loss. Grant Bachman hit a buzzer-beater to force overtime at Northwest before Ben Manning drained four straight clutch free throws. Those were two nice wins for a young team which is coming on strong … Despite losing four starters from last year’s District 4 Class A finalist, North Penn-Liberty (8-4) has emerged as a title contender again, winning four of its last five games. The Mounties put the clamps on an explosive offense last Friday, defeating Cowanesque Valley, 55-33 two nights after CV scored 85 points against Sayre. McGwire Painter (59) and Tucker St. Peter (40) have the two highest scoring games in District 4 this year, but the Mounties held that duo to 16 points and broke open a close game in the second half. Hunter Thompson scored a career-high 19 points and Noah Shedden was a rebound from a double-double … Bucktail is making nice strides this season, already having made a three-win improvement. The progress continued with a 57-52 win at Benton as Dylan Cross scored 20 points and Braylon Fantaski added 14 … Milton (8-4) enjoyed a super turnaround season in football and is doing the same in basketball now. The Black Panthers have won four of their last five games and rallied from 11 down in the third quarter to win, 50-43 at Southern Columbia. Xzavier Minium and Jace Brandt combined for 35 points and Luke Delong scored a career-high 21 points two nights later against Midd-West … Montgomery (6-5) has won straight and Austin Kuhn went for a career-high 20 points and eight rebounds in a 58-39 win against Benton before adding 15 rebounds a day later at Millville. Montgomery produced 27 points and 35 points in a quarter in both wins and Jacob Utter had 10 rebounds against CMVT … Eli Weikle scored a career-high 22 points, helping Muncy thump Millville, 89-44. Weikle made 9 of 11 shots and Ross Eyer grabbed his 500th career rebound. The junior scored 30 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, dealt seven assists and produced his ninth straight double-double … Karson Dominick scored 31 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter, helping North Penn-Mansfield rally from a fourth-quarter deficit to beat Towanda, 64-62 in overtime.

DR. MASSE’S TOP 5 RANKINGS

1. Williamsport (7-2): Any win against perennial District 11 Pottsville is a good one, but Williamsport defeating it Saturday was especially impressive considering the circumstances. The Millionaires had not practiced since Saturday and were missing two key contributors, but still rallied from five down in the fourth quarter to win, 53-50 on JJ Beagle’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer. Starters and reserves made strong contributions and the Millionaires allowed just four points over the final five minutes. It was the second time this season Williamsport has overcome a deficit of five or more in the second half to win at the buzzer, also doing so at Scranton Prep. The Millionaires need another well-rounded performance Wednesday when they head to Dallas (6-2) for a game that will be televised live.

2. Loyalsock (9-3): Loyalsock also excelled short-handed Saturday, dressing only seven players but thumping Southern Columbia, 92-52. The Lancers continue receiving balanced scoring and four players reached double figures. That victory capped a 3-0 week in which Loyalsock scored at least 79 points each time and remained undefeated in the HAC-II. The defending Class AAA state champions have won five straight games and Brendan Clark twice reached career-highs, first scoring 22 points against Mount Carmel before going for 25 against Southern. Sophomores Jaylen Andrews (18) and Gage Patterson (14) combined for 14. Saraj Ali continued his big senior season and nearly produced a quadruple-double, finishing with 27 points, 15 rebounds, 11 steals and seven assists. Loyalsock opened the season with four new starters, but is starting to hit its collective stride.

3. St. John Neumann (8-2): South Williamsport’s win against Northwest means Neumann has sole possession for first place in the Mid-Penn. Obviously, the Knights are thinking bigger than winning a 10th straight league championship but if they do so, that still would be a nice feather in the cap. JerVal Weeks-Shuler always has been a reliable defender and rebounder but he also is becoming more assertive offensively and scored a season-high nine points in Friday’s 78-68 win against Millville. Hanief Clay scored 25 points in that victory, hitting three 3-pointers and Davion Hill added 24. That Knights also gave coach Jamie Spencer his 100th career victory. Spencer began his coaching career at Montoursville where her turned around a dormant program during the 2000s and he led the Knights to a second straight district championship a year ago.

4. Wellsboro (8-2): Conner Adams and Peyton McClure form one of the area’s premier backcourts and they led the way in double-digit wins against Williamson and Athens. Adams dealt 11 assists in those victories and McClure scored a season-high 21 points Friday as Wellsboro won, 62-49 and handed Athens its first NTL-I loss. McClure, who had five assists against Williamson, is one of the district’s top shooters and drained seven 3-pointers against Athens. Cameron Brought is enjoying a breakthrough season for Wellsboro and went for a career-high 16 points and seven rebounds against Williamson as Wellsboro built a 28-0 first-quarter lead. Liam Manning added a season-high 22 points, showing off Wellsboro’s effective inside-outside game.

5. Lewisburg (7-2): The Green Dragons played just once last week and were short-handed in that game, but it did not show. All 12 players who dressed scored and Lewisburg defeated Millville, 69-36. Lewisburg has won six of its last seven games and Neumann is the only team to reach 50 points against it during that stretch. The Dragons are perched atop the deep District 4 Class AAAA field in the power rankings and also can do damage inside and outside. Forward Jake Hernandez scored 18 points against Millville and has reached double figures in all but one game this season.

Players of the Week

Josh Heiney, Hughesville and Logan Almeida, Montgomery

Heiney came up big for short-handed Hughesville last Wednesday, scoring a career-high 28 points as the Spartans defeated Midd-West, 64-48. The Spartans were missing three starters and trailed by three at halftime but Heiney came alive, hit four 3-pointers and helped a team that has been forced to use 10 different starters since Dec. 28 win its eighth game. The senior point guard dazzled in Saturday’s 60-53 win at Millville, scoring 33 points, making seven 3-pointers and dealing six assists. Almeida made 7 of his 10 3-point attempts and averaged 20.7 points in three victories. He also made eight steals against CMVT and averaged 4.3 assists last week.

Game of the Week

Coatesville at Williamsport

Two programs with proud traditions collide Saturday at the Magic Dome. Coatesville and Williamsport have played some memorable state tournament games in the past and combined to win three state championships. This is a game which can help both teams as they pursue lofty postseason goals.

Chris Masse may be reached at cmasse@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse.

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