POINT PLEASANT BEACH - Between an influx of newcomers on the roster and a persistent ankle injury to starting guard Jimmy Panzini, Point Beach had a difficult time trying to put it all together during the regular season.

However, with Panzini back in the lineup and the offense playing at a high level, the Garnet Gulls may have found their rhythm at the perfect time as they try to defend their Shore Conference Tournament title. With Panzini setting the tone from the outset, 15th-seeded Point Beach knocked off 18th-seeded Matawan 59-54 on Wednesday night to advance to face second-seeded Lakewood in the Round of 16 on Thursday.

"With Jimmy back, we're a whole different team, and it showed tonight,'' said senior center Jesse Hill. "The way he attacks the rim and gets good shots, it's a big difference."

"We're definitely coming together now,'' said Panzini, a junior guard who estimated that he is 80 percent recovered from his ankle injury. "The last 8-10 games, we haven't been playing together as a team, so it feels great to finally be playing together and have everything really clicking."

Panzini was a difference-maker on both sides of the floor against the Huskies (11-10), who the Garnet Gulls (16-7) eliminated from the SCT for the second straight year. He had a game-high 20 points and also was part of the defensive effort that limited Hartford recruit Jason Dunne to nine points on 3-for-10 shooting.

"Dunne and (senior guard Joe) Piscopo, those are the two main guys we were focusing on,'' Panzini said. "The offense runs through them, so if you can stop them, you are going to win."

The Huskies didn't go down without a fight thanks to a team-high 16 points by junior guard Mergim Gjyriqi, who buried four 3-pointers.

"In the scouting report, it didn't seem like (Gjyriqi) was a shooter, but then he comes out and hits two or three (3-pointers), and we're like, 'We've got to get a hand up on him,''' Panzini said. "He really changed the game. He kept hitting that big shot to get them back in the game."

Gjyriqi's 3-pointer with 3:50 left in the game tied it at 47, but the Garnet Gulls responded with a 7-0 run that pushed the lead to seven with 1:09 remaining and included a three-point play by Hill in which he was bear-hugged but still got the shot to fall with the foul for a 51-47 lead.

Gjyriqi then buried another 3-pointer with 50 seconds to go to cut it to 54-50. The teams traded free throws to keep the margin at four before a missed 3-pointer by Piscopo and a blocked lay-up led to Panzini throwing it ahead to Hill for an emphatic slam to cap the win with 17 seconds remaining. Hill, a Florida Atlantic recruit, finished with 18 points and 8 boards, including seven fourth-quarter points.

"I saw Jesse leaking out from the corner of my eye and I just wanted to get it up to him to dunk it,'' Panzini said. "He scared me at first because I didn't think he got high enough, but he threw it down."

"I had a little bit of weird jump, but I'll take it,'' Hill said before smiling.

The game was tight the entire way as the teams were tied at 26 at the half thanks to 13 first-half points by Panzini, 11 of which came in the second quarter. Nick Smith scored eight of his 10 points for Matawan in the first half, and Piscopo and Gjyriqi also had eight first-half points.

Point Beach made it clear from the outset that it was zeroed in on Dunne, running a second defender at him whenever he caught the ball and using help defenders to try to deny him from even catching it. The 6-foot-8 Hill was often used as the second defender to bother Dunne with his length.

"We wanted to be in contact with him at all times,'' Hill said. "We didn't want him touching the ball. We wanted every shot contested. I wanted to be there for help the whole game to try to change shots."

Point Beach had the lead as high as nine points in the third quarter after a pair of free throws by junior Ryan Sheehan made it 40-31 with 1:45 left in the period. Point Beach buried three 3-pointers in the quarter, including a second one by Hill that made it 43-35 head into the fourth quarter. The Garnet Gulls' defense forced five turnovers in the period to limit Matawan's shot attempts, holding Piscopo and Dunne to a combined three shots in the third.

Matawan answered with a 7-0 run fueled by four points by Dunne to start the fourth quarter and chop the lead to 45-42. Gjyriqi's game-tying 3-pointer to make it 47-all then set up the furious finish, and the Garnet Gulls went 9-for-12 from the foul line in the final 2:37 to help bring it home.

"We knew they were going to hit some tough shots because they are a good team, but we knew that on offense they couldn't stop us,'' Hill said.

Even though three-fifths of Point Beach's starting lineup are transfers who were not part of the team that won last season's SCT, they still feel the responsibility of defending the crown.

"This is our title,'' said Hill, who came over from Jackson Memorial. "We're not going anywhere, and we're going to win it again."

"It really means a lot to defend the championship and not let those guys down,'' said Panzini, who played at St. Anthony last season.

Next up is a major obstacle in second-seeded Lakewood, which beat Point Beach on a 3-pointer at the buzzer during the regular season.

"I think we should've won that game, and we're going to win tomorrow,'' Hill said.

"It's time for revenge,'' Panzini said.

Box score

Point Beach 59, Matawan 54

Matawan (54): Smith 3 4-5 10, Dunne 3 2-2 9, Gjyriqi 7 0-0 19, Ore-Onitolo 0 0-0 0, Piscopo 5 2-2 13, Esposito 1 0-0 2, Spann 2 0-0 4. Totals: 20 8-9 54.

Pt. Beach (59): Panzini 7 5-8 20, D. Frauenheim 0 0-0 0, Rice 2 0-0 5, M. Frauenheim 1 4-4 7, Schifano 1 0-0 2, Covey 0 0-0 0, Hill 6 5-6 18, Sheehan 2 3-3 7. Totals: 19 17-21 59.

Matawan (11-10)  15  11  9 19 - 54

Pt. Beach (16-7)   11  15  17 16 - 59

Three-pointers: (M) Gjyriqi 4, Piscopo 3, Dunne; (P) Hill 2, M. Frauenheim, Panzini, Rice. Fouled out: (M) Dunne.