MIDDLETOWN - A year ago, most of the Christian Brothers Academy boys basketball players were just getting their first taste of varsity basketball action.

One calendar year later, the Colts have shown in just two games how far they have come following a mass graduation exodus following 2015-16.

Following a season-opening loss to N.J. Prep power Blair Academy over the weekend, CBA - ranked No. 5 in the Shore Sports Network Preseason Top 10 - opened its Shore Conference season Tuesday with a resounding, 80-64 win over a talented, senior-laden Howell squad in front of its home crowd thanks to a dominant second half.

Four CBA players scored in double-figures Tuesday and all five starters scored at least eight points, led by a career-high 24 points from junior Stephen Braunstein. He also added seven rebounds and five assists.

CBA junior Stephen Braunstein. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Fellow juniors Josh Cohen and Liam Kennedy added 17 points each, with Cohen grabbing 11 rebounds and Kennedy handing out six assists. Senior Nolan Madden poured in 16 points thanks to 4-for-5 shooting from beyond the three-point arc.

Junior Rob Mahala contributed an all-around effort with eight points, six rebounds, four steals and two blocks, including an acrobatic, chase-down rejection of Howell senior Brandon Wilson when the 6-2 guard elevated for a dunk on a fast break.

A year ago, the Colts players were a long way away from even considering opening against a team the caliber of Blair, but this group battled to a 69-50 defeat before bouncing back in convincing fashion on Tuesday.

"I thought we were prepared for Blair," Braunstein said. "We played them tough. They were just more experienced - they had already had 10 games and it was our first game. But we were excited to play a team like that. I think we could beat them by the end of the year, but they are a prep school, so (we won't play them)."

Howell stayed close with the host team through one half thanks to an advantage on the offensive glass, trailing just 33-31 after the first 16 minutes. The Colts took control in the third quarter by outscoring the Rebels 30-9 in the quarter to take a 63-40 lead.

Braunstein led CBA with nine points in the quarter, while Madden scored eight and Cohen dropped six.

"We didn't change that much. We just played a lot harder," Braunstein said of the third quarter.

Last year, Cohen was the only player on CBA to average more than 10 points per game, but Tuesday's game showed the Colts will have multiple scoring threats this year with two guards in Braunstein and Kennedy who can create for themselves and others.

Braunstein, in particular, has showed off his improved game early on by averaging a team-best 20.5 points in the two games to open the year.

"We want to defend, but we don't mind a high-scoring game either," Braunstein said. "Everyone on our team can score. Most people don't know, but we we have guys who can all score 15 or 20, so if team's want to challenge us to score with them, we're fine with that."

CBA junior Josh Cohen handles against Howell senior Nasiem Brantley. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Cohen also showed his versatility and athleticism Tuesday by fully participating in an up-tempo performance by CBA against an athletic Howell team that boasts All-Shore football players Eddie Morales and Nasiem Brantley in the starting lineup. Cohen came to camp this year taller (6-9) and more agile than he was as a sophomore last year and he can not only start the break with an outlet pass, but can trail the play and finish as well.

"We have athletic guys too," Cohen said. "We can push the ball and we want to push the ball against the premier teams in the Shore."

It has been eight years since CBA last won a Shore Conference Tournament championship, which is the longest drought between titles for the Colts since winning their first of 16 titles in 1984. With Ranney's roster still around for another season after this one, this CBA group will have to successfully play the role of underdog to end that drought, but the Colts are hoping with a tougher schedule and a more experienced team, they will be ready to turn heads in the postseason.

After all, it's not often a CBA team as promising as this one is gets to play the role of the underdog.

"It was tough playing a team like Blair to open, but I think we learned a lot from it," Cohen said. "We found out we can't come out and win just because our name is CBA. I think that's one thing we've really learned as a group is we're going to have to go out and earn it every single game."


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