MIDDLETOWN – A milestone performance by Vincent Pennino and a barrage of three-point field goals erased an 11-point halftime deficit to lead the third-season Lions to a 71-61 victory over the sixth-seeded Red Raiders in the opening round of Shore Conference Tournament Pod C competition.


With three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Keyport’s thousand-point scorer, DJ Thompson, forced a steal and drove hard to the basket, where he took a hit, converted a layup and hit a free throw to cut the High School North lead to 60-57.


On their ensuing possession, the Lions worked the ball around the perimeter before Pennino pulled up from beyond the arc and knocked down a jump shot from the left wing, snuffing out Keyport’s comeback bid.

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“You could say I was feeling it tonight. I’m a three-point shooter, so I had to get it going if we were going to come back in this one,” said Pennino, who recorded 18 of his career-high 30 points in the second half. “It was an ugly first half for us, but credit to Keyport for coming out and giving us a punch. But we never give up, and that’s what I really love about this game.”


The Lions offense was cold to start this opening round matchup, while Thompson led a red-hot Keyport attack, recording 17 of his team-high 27 in the first half. His performance, paired with 10 more first half points from Anthony Longo allowed the Red Raiders to head into the third quarter with 41-30 advantage.


But the lead was short-lived, as the Lions opened the second half on a 14-3 run, including two three-point field goals from Pennino and Tommy Giannone, and two more from Matt Kenny, his lone points of the evening.


“I was cold in the first half; missing a bunch of shots, but my teammates kept telling me to shoot the ball. They kept telling me that I’m one of the best shooters in the conference, giving me confidence, giving me good passes and getting me open, and I was able to hit a couple at a big point in the game,” said Kenny, who is the Lions leading scorer this season.


Tommy Giannone added 11 of his 17 points in the second half, contributing to an offensive onslaught that allowed the Lions to outscore the Red Raiders 39-20 over the final two quarters.


“We were a completely different team in the second half,” Lions first-year head coach Kevin Spies said. “At halftime we were talking about motivation, and how it has to be intrinsic. It has to come from within. And they found it. They stuck to their game and clawed through the mud until they reached dry land.”


High School North will prepare to host Jackson Liberty on Wednesday, March 3, following the seventh-seeded Lions’ 42-38 opening round upset of second-seeded St. John Vianney.