Shore Conference Tournament Semifinals

Thursday, Feb. 22

At RWJ Barnabas Health Arena, Toms River

No. 1 Ranney (22-4) vs. No. 5 Christian Brothers Academy (17-6), 6 p.m.

The Shore Conference’s ultimate Goliath of the last three decades has a chance to be its ultimate underdog story in Thursday’s first semifinal. This matchup might bear some resemblance to last year’s SCT semifinal in which Marlboro upset Ranney, also in Toms River: the second-place team in A North coming off a win over the first-place A North team trying to take down a Ranney team that has all five of its starters back from last year’s team.

In addition to that surface-level information, CBA also has a 6-foot-9 center in Josh Cohen who is capable of having a game similar to the one Dylan Kaufman had as a sophomore against the Panthers, one that helped Marlboro compete on the glass and gave the Mustangs some interior scoring.

The similarities between the two teams begin to stop there, not even necessarily to CBA’s detriment. Marlboro was a more senior-laden team, but CBA has been a more consistent-shooting team and has more scoring threats on the floor than the Mustangs did.

CBA junior Josh Cohen blocks a shot by Colts Neck senior Sabour Quddus. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

The problem for CBA on Thursday, however, is not what it lacks relative to Marlboro’s 2017 Cinderella team. It is what Ranney has relative to its own team last year. It took a miserable offensive half by the Panthers – one that saw leading scorer Bryan Antoine shoot 0-for-6 from the field – to get Marlboro to the break with a lead, so another lackluster start is probably a must for CBA.

Additionally, the aforementioned five returning starters were all sophomores last year and all are bigger and better than a year ago. One of those starters is no longer a starter because the team welcomed in St. Anthony transfer Savior Akuwovo – an athletic 6-foot-8 center who just committed to Division I Howard and is averaging a double-double on a team with two five-star recruits for wing players.

With Akuwovo, there is almost no winning for defenses trying to figure out what to do against the Panthers. In the quarterfinals, Toms River North zoned up Ranney and competed for the first 21 minutes of the game before a 21-2 run put the game out of reach, but it was the Mariners’ shooting and rebounding that kept them in the game. When the shots began to miss, Ranney turned those rebounds into quick points.

CBA doesn’t have the front-court depth that Toms River North does, but the Colts do have some shooting and will need it in spades on Thursday. While CBA has been a solid defensive team all year and has one of the Shore’s better defenders in senior Rob Mahala to shadow Scottie Lewis or float in a zone scheme, the Colts only have so much man power to spread around the floor. Perhaps if Cohen can get Akuwovo in foul trouble, Ranney might have to go deeper into its bench than it would like to, but that still leaves two nearly unguardable players, two more very good offensive threats and a 6-6 center off the bench in Chris Autino.

Ranney senior Savior Akuwovo came up with the game-sealing block in the final seconds Monday at Mater Dei. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

In the end though, it’s hard to see CBA being able to come up with something that can work for 32 minutes against this Ranney group. Antoine has been good for an easy 20 points in games like this from the moment he put on a high school jersey and now Lewis is on the same plane based on his big-game performances this year. Unless that changes dramatically and Antoine is the only Ranney player doing substantial damage on the offensive end, CBA is in for a lot of chasing.

Side note: The Colt Crazies will certainly be out in full force for this one but will the neutral part of the crowd get behind CBA in a close game the way it got behind Marlboro last year? I suspect the answer is mostly yes, but even if it is not, the Colts would love to find out either way. Unfortunately for them and anyone looking for a dramatic finish, it’s probably not all that likely. The Pick: Ranney, 75-54

No. 2 Mater Dei Prep (20-4) vs. No. 3 Rumson-Fair Haven (21-1), 7:45 p.m.

From the start of the season and even at the start of this tournament, the general consensus, even with many acknowledging how good Rumson is, was that Ranney and Mater Dei would meet for a third time at Monmouth University in the SCT final. Mater Dei is the two-time defending champion while the Panthers are one of New Jersey’s best teams with an overwhelmingly-talented starting five, and while there are some very good teams from seeds No. 3 to the fringes of the top 10, none have the talent to keep up with Ranney, nor the championship chops of Mater Dei.

On the other hand, Mater Dei and Ranney appeared to be locks for last year’s title game and not only did Marlboro actually spoil the party by beating Ranney – Toms River North nearly took out Mater Dei in the next game. Ultimately, however, Mater Dei found a way to win that game against the Mariners and wore down Marlboro in the championship game.

Going back to that game against Toms River North, Mater Dei has played with fire in all of its SCT games despite pulling through in every one. The Seraphs trailed Marlboro late in the third quarter before their depth and current senior Kyle Cardaci took over in the fourth and brought home the second of two straight titles. This year, Mater Dei has had to win both of its games without two starters – senior point guard Kenny Jones and 6-9 senior center Adam Afifi – and had to fight off tough challenges by both Ocean and Manasquan just to get to this point.

Mater Dei junior Alexander Rice. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Jones battled the flu for nearly a week and Afifi has been dealing with a shoulder injury since the beginning of the year, which he aggravated during practice on Feb. 13, according to coach Ben Gamble. While Mater Dei lacked the same offensive prowess without either Jones or Afifi, it showed it can still play shutdown defense, which will probably be a prevailing theme in the second game of Thursday’s double-header. Jones and Afifi both returned to practice on Tuesday and are expected to play, according to Gamble.

While Mater Dei is trying to get healthy, Rumson is as healthy as it has been all year. Senior guard Jack Solano is back after missing a month with a broken orbital bone and is coming off a strong shooting performance in the quarterfinals. With Solano bringing back that element of instant offense from beyond the arc and classmate Teddy Sourlis coming off a 3-for-3 game from behind the three-point line, Rumson looks as sharp as it has been all year shooting the three-point shot.

The unique part of this Rumson team compared to the last few is how athletic the Bulldogs are. Elijah McAllister is one of the state’s best shot-blockers, junior Ian O’Connor is a very tough matchup for teams that don’t have athletes with size, and junior Jackson McCarthy is a 6-5 wing who has shown he can lock up perimeter threats, which he will have to do on Thursday. Rumson has also gotten strong point-guard play from senior Devin Cooper in its two tournament wins.

Rumson senior Jack Solano. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

The most fun matchup in this game could be sophomores Phillip Wheeler of Rumson and Jamir Watkins of Mater Dei going head-to-head. They are probably the two most gifted athletes on the floor and can both change the game off the bench, although Watkins could very well be forced into starting duty again. Both can be a handful for defenses to stop, but both teams have the athletes to make offense hard to come by for either.

On the defensive side, Rumson will have to contend with a four-guard arsenal. Jones is the point man for the offense and his absence caused a real strain on Mater Dei’s ability to function smoothly on that side of the floor. It is still a good backcourt without Jones, with Cardaci, junior Alexander Rice and senior Yasin Pretlow all bringing a lot to the table on both ends. With Jones back in the fold, Rumson has a lot to think about.

Player-to-player, the two teams match up very evenly, with Rumson owning the edge in depth and Mater Dei owning a slight edge in the starting five, if healthy. It’s a matchup that could go either way and even to the extreme – both teams are capable of running away with the win if everything is clicking. Mater Dei should be concerned with its health and some rustiness from Jones, as well as Rumson starting to get hot on the offensive end. Rumson, meanwhile, will be facing a team that is more athletic than most of its opponents this year and one that is capable of shooting the ball much better than it has through the first two rounds.

This is a very tough game to pick because with as may athletes as both teams have and as even as the matchup is, it will probably come down to simple shot-making. Mater Dei has looked like the better defensive team, but its shooting has been off recently and Rumson can guard as well. In the end, Rumson appears to be the healthier team and peaking heading into this game. Just to get to Thursday, Mater Dei has had to scratch and claw twice already -  eventually one is going to slip away. As well as the Bulldogs are playing, this might be the one. The Pick: Rumson, 53-49

Quarterfinals Picks Record: 4-0

Overall SCT Picks Record: 19-4

Readers’ Quarterfinals Picks: 3-1

Readers’ Overall SCT Picks: 19-4

 

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