TOMS RIVER - A year ago, students, faculty and alumni of Mater Dei Prep High School were counting the days until the school would close its doors for good while also counting the dollars it would take to reverse course.

Now, the Mater Dei boys basketball team is not only still in existence but it is one win away from program history.

Senior Kyle Elliot led four Mater Dei players in double-figures with 17 points and the top-seeded Seraphs beat No. 4 Toms River North, 62-50, to win their 20th straight game and advance to the Shore Conference Tournament championship game for the first time since 1984.

Mater Dei junior Elijah Mitchell throws down two of his 16 points. (Photo by Rob Samuels)

To go from nearly extinct to the favorite in the Shore Conference Tournament, Mater Dei brought in the coach of another school that announced a closing. Cardinal McCarrick was not able to stave off its shutdown and with head coach Ben Gamble out of a job, Mater Dei jumped at the chance to hire the former St. Anthony assistant who had led McCarrick to 20 wins in his first season.

"It's ironic, because Mater Dei was about to close and I'm at Cardinal McCarrick and I said to my assistant, 'Go over there and see what they got - maybe some kids will want to transfer over here,'" Mater Dei coach Ben Gamble said. "A year later I'm here with my group of McCarrick kids. It's all just God's will and it's amazing how things turned out."

Four Cardinal McCarrick players followed Gamble to Mater Dei Prep and a host of transfers followed. In all, nine transfers from four different schools - McCarrick, Marist, Central Regional and Rahway - joined program in year one and the result - regardless of the outcome of the championship game - has been a smashing success.

"I think this has been the goal from day one," Elliot said. "Coach (Gamble) has been trying to get us to buy into what he's trying to do from the beginning. We want to get this program going for the next few years and start big this year."

Mater Dei seized control of Tuesday's game with a 16-1 run that spanned the final minute of the first quarter and the entirety of the second quarter. During the second quarter alone, the Seraphs outscored the Mariners 13-1.

Junior Elijah Mitchell poured in 16 points to go with six rebounds for Mater Dei, while junior Elijah Barnes and senior NyQuan McCombs each added 10 in the win. Barnes also added seven rebounds and three blocks while McCombs handed out six assists.

Elliot and Mitchell helped stave off a last-ditch effort by Toms River North - playing on its home floor - to pull even. A drive by Pat Marinaccio pulled the Mariners within single-digits, 53-44, for the first time since the second quarter with 4:46 to play and would cut the lead to nine three more times but never get closer.

"We came into the locker room and we said we could be a lot better on defense," Elliot said. "Coach said, 'You're 16 minutes away and you've got to go out and play good defense for 16 minutes and get this win, and that's what we were able to do."

Elliot twice answered Toms River North baskets with layups, the first on a feed from Elijah Mitchell and the second on a leak-out in transition. Mitchell delivered the exclamation point with a one-handed dunk in the final 20 seconds to account for the final points of the game.

Mike Nyisztor hit four threes and finished with 14 points to lead Toms River North while senior Hunter Petrick added 13. Jaden Rhoden added 10 points for the Mariners, nine of which came in the second half.

Nyisztor hit two of his threes during the first quarter, during which Toms River North grabbed an early 15-12 lead. Mater Dei started the game on a 10-2 run, but the Mariners answered with a 13-2 burst, keyed by the two triples by Nyisztor and another three-ball by Marinaccio.

"They had to work really hard to get the threes," Gamble said. "As I've been saying all year, we started to get into their legs and I can always keep fresh bodies on a guy. They had to really take time and energy to get a three, so I was okay with them hitting a few early."

McCombs hit a three-pointer as time expired in the first to pull Mater Dei within 16-15 and found Josh Green for a layup on the first possession of the second quarter to give Mater Dei the lead for good.

"I thought they had their run in the first quarter," Gamble said. "Our guys came back to the huddle at the end of the first quarter and I told them, 'They had their run, now we gotta go.' We scored on the first possession and we went from there."

Mater Dei will take on No. 2 Christian Brothers Academy in Saturday's final at Monmouth University, scheduled for a 7 p.m. tip-off. The Seraphs have not lost since Jan. 3, when they fell to Pope John, 38-35.

In Mater Dei's only other trip to the SCT championship game 32 years ago, the Seraphs lost to CBA, which was the first ever conference title for the Colts program.

"CBA is just legendary," Gamble said. "All these years, I've always watched CBA and it's a great team.

"I really don't care who it is, though. I'm just really excited to be in the championship game."

 

Box Score

Mater Dei Prep 62, Toms River North 50

1 2 3 4 F
Toms River North (22-4) 16 1 15 18 50
Mater Dei (23-1) 15 13 17 17 62

 

Toms River North (50): Darrion Carrington 3 0-0 6, Mike Nyisztor 5 0-0 14, Pat Marinaccio 2 2-2 7, Jaden Rhoden 3 4-7 10, Hunter Petrick 4 5-7 13, Mike Husni 0 0-0 0 , Anthony Storino 0 0-0 0. Totals: 17 11-16 50

Three-pointers: Nyisztor 4, Marinaccio

Mater Dei (62): NyQuan McCombs 3 2-4 10, Kenny Jones 1 0-0 3, Elijah Barnes 3 4-6 10, Elijah Mitchell 6 2-5 16, Kyle Elliot 6 4-4 17, Bryan Harris 1 0-0 2, Marvin Pierre 0 0-0 0, Josh Green 2 0-0 4. Totals: 22 12-19 62

Three-pointers: McCombs 2, Jones, Mitchell 2, Elliot