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Lions roll to 64-41 victory over Lakewood in home opener

Jackson Liberty High School boys basketball player Phanique Dupree steals the ball and leads a fast break during a game against Lakewood on Dec. 21 in Jackson. Dupree scored 13 points to help Jackson Liberty defeat Lakewood 64-41.

Second-year coach Don Connor and his Jackson Liberty High School boys basketball team are ready to take the next step in a rebuilding process as the Lions seek to become a successful program in the Shore Conference.

During a 2020-21 season that was impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, the Lions went 8-7. Jackson Liberty is off to a 2-1 start in the 2021-22 campaign.

The Lions won their home opener in dominating fashion against Lakewood on Dec. 21 in Jackson. The squad roared out to an 8-0 lead and went on to a 64-41 victory over the Piners.

The Lions were coming off a loss to St. Rose High School of Belmar on Dec. 20 and Connor was pleased with how his players rebounded from the setback to the Purple Roses.

“Going to 2-1 is really good for the program,” Connor said after the win over Lakewood. “We needed to rebound from a tough loss to St. Rose. We tell the kids it’s today and tomorrow and that we just have to get better every day and build the program.”

Three-point field goals helped the Lions score a season-high 64 points against Lakewood. The Lions made eight shots from behind the arc, led by senior Dahkareo Pritchett, who hit four three-pointers en route to a team-high 16 points.

“I just got into a rhythm and let it go,” Pritchett said of his three-point shooting. “It got the crowd excited. I’m all about that. It was great to come out and get the win for the school.”

Senior center Phanique Dupree played an outstanding all-around game in the paint against Lakewood. Dupree scored all 13 of his points in the first half to help the Lions take a 39-15 lead into the break.

In Jackson Liberty’s season opener against Barnegat on Dec. 17, Dupree scored 18 points to lead the Lions to a 49-33 victory over the Bengals.

Dupree is a three-year starter and understands his role as a leader and a tone setter to help the team succeed.

“Coming into the season, I feel I can dominate more than I could the last two years,” he said. “I’m going to score, play good defense and do the best I can to help out the team and win games.”

Senior Dallas Weisse dialed up 10 points from the wing against Lakewood, including two three-point field goals.

Sophomore point guard Dylan Teopaco scored five points and senior Channing Williams rounded out the starting five by contributing seven points.

Connor has been impressed with Williams’ play in the early going and called him one of the most improved players in Ocean County.

“Our starting five is really solid,” the coach said.

Scoring 64 points against Lakewood marked the first time Jackson Liberty has scored 60 points or more in a game since the 2018-19 season.

Being able to score that many points is a positive outcome, but Connor knows it is not the only thing the Lions need to do each time they hit the court. They have to continue to play good defense for 32 minutes and get better production at the foul line.

“It’s a night in and night out thing,” he said. “We really have to concentrate on playing an entire game and a full game. I am hoping for consistency and building more on our identity as a hard-nose team that is tough to play, especially at home.”

Jackson Liberty will play in the Blue Devil Holiday Tournament at Shore Regional High School, West Long Branch, during the holiday break. The Lions will take on host Shore Regional to open the tournament on Dec. 28.

In January, the grind of playing in the Shore Conference C North Division will pick up for Jackson Liberty with home games against Manasquan and Monmouth Regional.

As he continues to try to build the program, Connor believes his players have shown over the last year plus that they are reaching the point of being a successful program.

The “precursor,” as Connor said, to doing that was a victory the Lions recorded over Saint John Vianney High School of Holmdel during the 2020-21 season.

The coach believes that type of victory against an established program can help propel the Lions to a strong 2021-22 campaign that could include a berth in the Shore Conference Tournament and a run at a state sectional tournament title.

“The prize goal for us is making it into the Shore Conference Tournament and making a strong run in Central Jersey Group III. We feel like we have a team that can do that,” Connor said.

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