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WEST LONG BRANCH - The celebration in the middle of the floor at the OceanFirst Bank Center was one that seemed a foregone conclusion when Scottie Lewis, Bryan Antoine, Alex Klatsky and Chris Autino entered the Ranney Upper School three years ago along with new head coach Tahj Holden.

That did not make the moment - Ranney's first ever conference championship since joining the Shore Conference six years ago - any less special for a group of players that has been building toward this night, not as an end goal, but as a stop along the way toward something even bigger.

Facing two-time champion and Shore Conference Class B Central rival Mater Dei Prep, Ranney sent a message in front of a capacity crowd at Monmouth University by overwhelming the Seraphs, 52-28, to check off another box in its pursuit toward rewriting the record books at Ranney and within the Shore Conference.

Photo by Paula Lopez

"For the past two or three years, we have been working toward a goal," Antoine said. "Today's the day was got it accomplished."

"We came out here already with tears in our eyes because we knew we were going to win," Lewis said. "We knew we wanted it more than they did. We knew it was going to take a lot of defensive stops and a lot of buckets and that's what we did.

"Big-time teams show up on big stages and that's what we set out to do."

The first SCT title in Ranney history comes during the junior seasons of Antoine, Lewis, Klatsky, Autino and classmate Ahmadu Sarnor, but it could be argued the first title came a year late as much as it came a year early. The Panthers were the No. 2 seed in last year's tournament, but lost in the semifinal to No. 6 Marlboro before getting a chance to play Mater Dei in the final.

Ranney (24-4) coasted to the final this year and once the Panthers took the floor at OceanFirst Center, they proved that this was, without question, their time.

"There is a little bit of relief, but it's also a joyous occasion and a special moment," Holden said. "Taking a program that wasn't in the Shore Conference until six years ago and pretty rapidly could compete in the state and the Shore Conference and even nationally is a pretty impressive thing, and it's all been done by a great group of guys. The guys I have had in the program for the last three years are not only good basketball players - they are good people."

Coming off a semifinal win over Christian Brothers Academy in which the Panthers fed the highlight reel with 12 dunks, Ranney used a more conventional mode to win a championship - with defense. Ranney's last two opponents cleared 50 points, but Mater Dei could not even crack 30 against a Panthers defense that played 32 relentless minutes.

"Today's gameplan was to come out and defend and the offense will take care of itself," Holden said. "To come out against a pretty good team - a top-20 team in the state with two Shore Conference Championships to their name in the last two years - and defend the way that we did shows what we're capable of defensively."

The first half, in particular, was a defensive display by a team that has made a name for itself with it's up-and-down pace and above-the-rim ability. Ranney held its rival to 10 points on 4-for-28 shooting (16.7 percent) in jumping out to a 32-10 advantage going into the locker room.

"I honestly don't even know (how we held Mater Dei to 10 first-half points)," Antoine said. "We were just focused on every possession. I found Savior (Akuwovo) for some layups, Ahmadu came out and was getting to the rim. Scottie hit some tough shots and Alex hit a three early. Everybody was doing their part and that got us going."

Mater Dei (21-5) showed fight in the third quarter by outscoring Ranney, 16-9, but the Panthers finished off their historic night by holding the Seraphs to two points in the fourth quarter. In all, Mater Dei shot just 11-for-52 (21.2 percent) for the game and 2-for-22 from three-point range - all the more impressive considering the Seraphs shot 10-for-16 from three in a semifinal win over Rumson-Fair Haven.

Ranney's two five-star prospects - Antoine and Lewis - had modest scoring games by their standards, while Sarnor stepped forward with his defining performance of the season. The 6-foot-2 junior matched Lewis with a game-high 15 points to go with nine rebounds and five assists, taking home game MVP honors.

"It's a great feeling," Sarnor said. "I'm so happy we were able to come out with this win. Last year, falling short, that gave us a chip on our shoulder this year to come out stronger and better than ever."

Sarnor has seen his per-game scoring average dip this season after scoring better than 14 points as a sophomore. He was averaging just over half that heading into Saturday, but it was not because he forgot how to score. Sarnor has accepted the role of point guard on a roster even more loaded than last year's and Saturday, he got himself involved on offense when it was time.

SCT Final MVP Ahmadu Sarnor of Ranney. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"I've had to become more of a leader and more of a point guard," said Sarnor, who scored 1,000 points for Collegium Charter in Pa. during his eighth grade and freshman seasons before transferring to Ranney before last year. "I wanted to get more people involved, because I don't have to 20 or 17 or whatever number. We have other players who can score too, so it's important for me to just play defense and do my job - get my teammates involved."

"Ahmadu all year has been doing anything we needed to win the game," Holden said. "Whether it's scoring, defending, rebounding, running the point for us - he's not a natural point, per se, but he gets us into our stuff and he's a really tough guy to guard. There have been games where he's scored only four points, but had 10 rebounds and 11 assists, so he's been delivering all year for us."

Lewis added 11 rebounds to go with his 15 points, 14 of which came in the first half. Sarnor and Lewis keyed Ranney's dominant first half, with Lewis shooting 6-of-7 from the field over the first 32 minutes.

Antoine chipped in 10 points, three assists, three steals and three blocks for Ranney and was in the middle of the action on defense. Senior Savior Akuwovo - who spent last season at the now-closed St. Anthony in Jersey City and the only senior in Ranney's regular six-man rotation - added eight points, eight rebounds and a blocked shot while also playing the role of disruptor on defense.

It was a look into the long hours practicing and playing together for a group of six players who have refined their collective ability from year-to-year while adding Sarnor to the team last year and Akuwovo this year.

"It's been amazing to watch," Holden said. "They play together year-round. When I watch them in the summer, I'm amazed at how good they are and then I get them in the fall and I'm like, 'You guys have a lot of holes in your game.' Now, we've fixed those holes and I have tried to let them be who they are on the court without giving them too much more to think about."

Ranney's performance was so dominant that the Panthers brushed off 21 turnovers against Mater Dei's defense, not only through its defense but shooting the ball as well. The Panthers shot 54.1 percent as a team (20-for-37), with Lewis finishing 6-for-10 and Sarnor going 6-for-8.

While Sarnor was Saturday's MVP, Lewis was the catalyst throughout Ranney's tournament run. In four games, he averaged 21 points, seven rebounds and five assists and shot better than 60 percent from the floor.

With Saturday's win, Ranney has now won three straight over Mater Dei this season and could see the Seraphs again on Saturday in the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B semifinals if both teams can win two home games prior to the weekend.

Ranney will next turns its attention toward becoming the first boys team from the Shore Conference to ever win the Tournament of Champions, but Saturday's performance already guaranteed this year's team a spot in Shore Conference lore.

"We created history our freshman year, we created history our sophomore year and now it's our junior year," Lewis said. "The six of us, we knew we were going to win the Shore Conference Tournament. Since day one, at tryouts, we talked about building a culture and continuing to create history."

 

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