WEST LONG BRANCH - Last year, "Save Our Seraphs" was the rallying cry that helped Mater Dei Prep pull together and raise enough money to keep the school open for another year and pass through a proposal to remain open for the foreseeable future.

Saturday at the Multipurpose Activities Center on the campus of Monmouth University, the Mater Dei boys basketball team looked beyond saving with nine minutes remaining before another miracle not only saved the Seraphs, but made school history.

Trailing by 18 points with nine minutes left in the game, top-seeded Mater Dei embarked on an improbable comeback for which Christian Brothers Academy had no answer and the Seraphs stormed to a 50-43 win over the No. 2 seed Colts to capture the program's first ever Shore Conference Tournament championship in most dramatic fashion.

"This is surreal," said first-year Mater Dei coach Ben Gamble, a former assistant under Bob Hurley at St. Anthony and head coach at Cardinal McCarrick for one year. "I don't have words for it. I dreamt about this for a long time - that I would win a championship with my stamp, outside of St. Anthony's. How this thing turned out tonight was just tremendous."

COMPLETE PHOTO GALLERY BY MARK BROWN, B51 PHOTOGRAPHY

Gamble was hired on June 11 after Mater Dei had announced plans to keep the school open indefinitely despite the Diocese of Trenton and St. Mary's Parish announcing its pending closing in February of 2015. He served as the head coach at Cardinal McCarrick for one season until that school went under following the end of last season.

The program had not been to a Shore Conference Tournament final since 1984 - when the Seraphs lost to CBA - and had last reached the SCT semifinals in 1990 and the quarterfinals in 2002.

"We never give up," said senior Bryan Harris, who followed Gamble to Mater Dei from Cardinal McCarrick. "No matter what happens, we don't give up, that's just how it is. Coach Gamble has a very big effect in that way. He sets the guidelines and we follow them because we know if we listen and stick to the way we do things, great things will happen."

CBA senior Pat Andree scored baskets on back-to-back possessions to give his team a 36-18 lead with 1:12 remaining in the third, at which point Mater Dei began to chip away. NyQuan McCombs hit a three-pointer, then slipped a pass to Kyle Elliot for a layup. Harris then hit two free throws to cut the deficit to 36-25 at the end of the quarter.

Harris gave the Seraphs a major lift off the bench with 14 points and six rebounds and made the play that Gamble cited as the one that convinced him that his team was going to pull off the comeback. Jones stole the ball and took it down the court for a reverse dunk that cut CBA's lead to 36-29, the Seraphs' 11th unanswered point.

"Any way I possibly could, I tried to help as much as I could," Harris said. "My voice is dying, I'm tired, but it feels great. It's great to help the team and get a great team win like this for Coach and for the school."

CBA actually pushed the lead back to 41-31 with four minutes left, but Mater Dei once again responded with a 15-0 run to take the lead in the final minute. McCombs found Harris for a lay-in, then scored on the break off a steal by sophomore Kenny Jones to pull the Seraphs within 41-35.

One possession later, the Seraphs came up with four points in one trip, starting with a basket-plus-the-foul by Harris. After an offensive rebound, junior Elijah Mitchell drove to the rim for two more and what was once an 18-point CBA lead was now down to two with 2:16 left.

Andree then missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and McCombs earned a trip to the free-throw line with 1:15 left and sank both attempts - the second of which came after a timeout - to even the score at 41.

On the following possession, junior Marvin Pierre stripped Andree for the steal, took it the length of the floor and scored as he was fouled to give Mater Dei its first lead of the game with 40.1 seconds left. Pierre banked in the free throw to put the Seraphs ahead, 44-41.

Another steal by Pierre led to two more free throws by Harris to cap the string of 15 unanswered Mater Dei points. CBA senior John Salcedo hit two clutch free throws with 15.8 seconds left to keep CBA in it, but Elliot answered with two of his own to effectively put the game out of reach with 12.9 seconds left.

"He's pretty much a football player with quick feet and I felt like Andree was a little tired at that time," Gamble said. "He beat him to the spot there and it was just tremendous."

Junior Elijah Barnes capped the night by scoring as he was fouled with two seconds left, followed by a celebration that seemed impossible just 10 minutes earlier and even less likely at this time last year.

McCombs finished with 12 points and four assists and Barnes chipped in 10 points and seven assists. Mitchell led a wave of defenders who defended Andree and hounded him during a 5-for-13 shooting game that ended with CBA's all-time leading scorer putting up 14 points to go with 14 rebounds.

Senior Jack McGuire, meanwhile, scored nine of his 15 points in the first half for CBA and scored what appeared to be a rally-quieting basket in the fourth quarter that gave CBA a 39-29 lead with 4:48 left.

CBA held Mater Dei to 4-for-14 shooting in the first half while forcing seven Seraphs turnovers. Mater Dei turned the tables in the fourth quarter, limiting CBA to just four shot attempts in the fourth quarter - two of which went in. The Colts turned the ball over six times against Mater Dei's pressure in the fourth quarter and finished the game with 14 turnovers.

McCombs led the defensive turnaround with his usual pressure on the ball against Salcedo, CBA's point guard. He defended him full court for the final 10 minutes and even forced a 10-second violation on his own during the fourth quarter.

"In two years, he's won 45 games," Gamble said of McCombs, who was his point guard at Cardinal McCarrick last year and was also in the St. Anthony program as an underclassman when Gamble was still on that staff. "I'm trying to convince colleges that he's a winner and that's the type of kid that you want. He just played so tough and he really got us going with toughness and grittiness."

Mater Dei has now won 21 games in a row and has not lost to a Shore Conference team during Gamble's first season. Gamble came to Mater Dei after Cardinal McCarrick announced its closing and brought four of his Eagles players with him - McCombs, Harris, Mitchell and senior Josh Green.

CBA has now lost in the Shore Conference Tournament final in each of the last three years - all against opponents that won their first ever SCT by beating the 16-time champs. The Colts lost 49-41 to top-seeded Point Beach in 2014 and got blitzed by No. 11 Rumson-Fair Haven as a No. 1 seed, 50-24.

"CBA, I have tons of respect for," Gamble said. "It's a tremendous program. This is a great feeling for us."

 

Bryan Harris accepts the I'm Possible Player of the Game from Bryce Stanhope of I'm Possible Training. (Photo by Rob Samuels)

 

Box Score

Mater Dei 50, CBA 43

1 2 3 4 F
CBA (21-5) 10 16 10 7 43
Mater Dei (24-1) 3 10 12 25 50

CBA (43): John Salcedo 2 4-4 9, Jack Boyan 1 0-0 3, Pat Andree 5 3-5 14, Jack McGuire 5 4-4 15, Sam Houston 0 0-0 0, Nick Mugavero 1 0-0 2, Robert Mahala 0 0-0 0. Totals: 14 11-13 43

Three-pointers: Salcedo, Boyan, Andree, McGuire

Fouled Out: Houston

Mater Dei (50): NyQuan McCombs 3 5-6 12, Kenny Jones 0 0-0 0, Elijah Barnes 4 1-2 10, Elijah Mitchell 1 2-5 4, Kyle Elliot 1 2-2 4, Bryan Harris 5 4-6 14, Josh Green 1 0-0 3, Marvin Pierre 1 1-1 3, Maleek McKnight 0 0-0 0, Tom Hannafin 0 0-0 0. Totals: 16 15-22 50

Three-pointers: McCombs, Barnes, Green