Boys Basketball – SCT Semifinal Preview
Shore Conference Tournament Semifinals
At Pine Belt Arena, Toms River
(1) Mater Dei Prep vs. (4) Toms River North, 6 p.m.
Just one year ago, juniors Elijah Barnes and Jaden Rhoden were sophomore teammates at Central Regional High School and as part of an up-and-coming nucleus for the Golden Eagles the two planned on reaching late stages of the Shore Conference Tournament together.
Central, however, could not get out of the opening round of the SCT last season and a year later, both Barnes and Rhoden left for greener pastures. Now the former teammates who once resolved to ignite a basketball renaissance at Central will be squaring off in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals as opponents for their respective new teams.
“It’s going to be fun to play against Mater Dei and I’m looking forward to playing against Elijah,” Rhoden said. “I know both of us wanted to get here last year but we lost in the first round so it’s great that we both made it this far and we’ll get to play each other.”
Barnes has been enforcer in the paint on both ends for a Mater Dei Prep team that has gone from the outskirts of the tournament field to the prohibitive favorite in one year. The 6-foot-6 junior is the tallest player on the guard-oriented roster and has helped lead the Seraphs to 19 straight wins and their best season in more than three decades.
“I’ve been watching this tournament from the stands the last two years hoping I’d get a chance to play on this stage,” Barnes said. “It’s much better to be playing than watching.”
Rhoden, meanwhile, joined a Toms River North team that reached the semifinals of this tournament last year and was the No. 1 seed in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournament, but endured severe reality checks in both tournaments that the Mariners were still a significant step away from performing well enough to win a championship in either tournament. The Mariners were routed by CBA in the SCT semifinals and lost at home to eighth-seeded Rancocas Valley by a double-digit margin.
The addition of the 6-foot-3 Rhoden has enhanced Toms River North’s athleticism on both ends of the floor, which has helped them both win the Class A South division title and reach the SCT semifinals for the third time in four years.
“It’s a good feeling because I’ve just been looking at these games from afar and imagining playing in them,” Rhoden said. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity and I’m glad I get to do it with a bunch of guys who are a close-knit group.”
Mater Dei, meanwhile, has embraced the No. 1 seed and the pressure that comes with it, which coach Ben Gamble said he is used to as a former assistant at St. Anthony.
“Where came from, you live with the bulls-eye on your back and it’s just part of the deal,” Gamble said. “It’s no different with these guys. They’ve wanted this and we’re going to approach every game the same.”
Breakdown and Prediction
The first of the two SCT semifinals has a David vs. Goliath feel to it, partially because Mater Dei has mostly looked indestructible since losing its only game of the season to Pope John on Jan. 2, but also because it’s hard to forget what has happened to Toms River North on this stage the two times the Mariners have been here.
They were no match for eventual champion Lakewood in 2013 and just last year – with many of the same players on this year’s roster – Toms River North took 12 minutes to score a point against CBA in a 65-29 drubbing at the hands of the Colts.
With the memory of that game still lingering, it is imperative for Toms River North to start fast, which the Mariners were able to do against Long Branch on Sunday. Of course, Toms River North found itself in a battle by the fourth quarter after squandering a 17-point lead, but the Mariners would take the opportunity to give up such a lead on Tuesday.
The Mariners have the opportunity to turn last year’s negative into this year’s positive by surprising Mater out of the gate on their home floor. Brookdale has brought mixed results for Toms River North, but the Mariners will get to play the Shore’s top team in their own gym, which is a rare opportunity for a Shore Conference team that makes it this far in the tournament.
On Mater Dei’s side, it should simply come down to execution, which was not a strong suit on the offensive end during Sunday’s win over Ranney. The Seraphs missed plenty of open looks in that game – looks that had been dropping in the previous 18 games of the winning streak. Regardless of any offensive obstacles to overcome, Mater Dei will defend and if the Seraphs keep Toms River North’s offense stuck in the halfcourt, the Seraphs will be in great position to advance to their first championship game since 1984, which was also the only finals appearance Mater Dei has ever made.
For Toms River North to win the game, the Mariners will have to benefit from the three-point shot, which was unkind against Long Branch and has run hot-and-cold this year – as it is wont to do for most teams. Mike Nyisztor is the x-factor because he can break a game if he’s hitting open looks, although those are few and far between against Mater Dei. The Mariners also have some length, which could be an advantage on the glass and on the defensive end in a matchup of two teams with almost all guards on the roster.
The Pick: Mater Dei, 63-51
(2) CBA vs. (3) Manasquan, 7:45 p.m.
After beating Class A Central rival and defending Shore Conference Tournament champion Rumson in a triple-overtime thriller on Sunday, Manasquan will look to ride Sunday’s high and construct another classic performance in order to beat a Christian Brothers Academy team that is on a mission.
Sunday’s 80-77 win over Rumson had a little bit of everything in it and pulling a victory out in a game that seemed like it was over at least four different times is often a springboard for teams during tournament time.
“I’ve played (at Brookdale) all four years I’ve been here and the atmosphere is always great,” senior Ryan Jensen said. “This game, though, with the three overtimes, the crowd and everything that happened, it’s the best game I’ve ever played in and it’s probably the best game a lot of the people here have ever seen. It’s hard not to be fired up after winning a game like that.”
Standing in Manasquan’s way is CBA – the team that eliminated the Warriors for the SCT last season by beating them 61-50 in the quarterfinal round at Brookdale. The Warriors fell short against the Colts, only to watch Rumson – a team Manasquan defeated twice during the regular season last year – blow out CBA in the SCT final.
The Warriors wanted a chance to show that they are also good enough to play as well as Rumson did against a top opponent on a given day, and this tournament has certainly given them that opportunity. Although Manasquan was awarded the No. 3 seed, it had to play the defending champion with the reigning Player of the Year in the quarterfinals, must face the team with the most SCT titles in the last three decades on Tuesday, then potentially get past the No. 1 seed on Saturday should both win on Tuesday.
One of the players most responsible for getting Manasquan to this point is senior guard Jack Sheehan, who transferred from CBA to Manasquan after his freshman year. Sheehan and his junior brother Tommy are both committed to play baseball at the University of Notre Dame, but both brothers – particularly Jack – has led the Warriors to a serious bid for an SCT title in basketball.
On the other side of the court, CBA is looking to bounce back from a devastating loss to Rumson in last year’s championship game in which the Bulldogs outscored the Colts 31-5 in the second half. Although CBA is the No. 2 seed, the Colts are a team with something to prove after last year and with Mater Dei earning the No. 1 seed at CBA’s expense.
"We feel like we were good enough to be the number one seed," Andree said. "We played probably the toughest schedule of anybody in the Shore and held our own. But Mater Dei has been really good too and they are also deserving of the one seed and it's hard to argue with them getting it. They're basically undefeated this year and they haven't lost in a while. Fortunately, we're going to have a chance to prove we're the best team on the court and we'll have to start with another tough game on Tuesday night."
Breakdown and Prediction
While the common refrain for matching up with CBA has been to supply guard pressure against the Colts and drive through their defense, it likely won’t be as simple as that because CBA is defending much better and handling pressure defense. In addition, Manasquan has a defense that prevents the dribble drive, guards with discipline and holds teams to one shot more than it racked up turnovers with relentless pressure.
The question is, will that help the Warriors or hurt them? CBA has only scored in the forties or below twice this season and has been held under 60 six times. With CBA playing an elevated level of defense lately, Manasquan will probably need to keep the Colts under 60 points in this game, which is not an unreasonable expectation given all of those aforementioned defensive traits.
Manasquan has defended star players with the duo of Shane Flanagan and Bryan Paturzo all year and it stands to reason they will get the call to guard Pat Andree on Tuesday. Anyone who needed proof that Andree was more than a shooter need only to watch the film of the win over Lakewood on Sunday. The 6-foot-8 Lehigh recruit set up teammates, handled the ball, defended with energy and even took a charge in a key spot. And yes, he also caught fire on offense long enough to score 26 points and carry CBA to victory over a talented Lakewood squad. Manasquan’s organization will make some headway, but it’s hard to be totally sure of a gameplan when the subject of that game plan is comfortable shooting with 27 feet of the basket.
Where Manasquan should have the edge is on the glass and with its perimeter defense. Jack Sheehan may also be able to find some mismatches and get to the basket at will like he did against Rumson. The three-point shot is not a huge part of Manasquan’s offense, but it can be a factor with Devin Jensen and Flanagan being especially dangerous to go along with Jack Sheehan.
For CBA to avoid an upset loss, it has to keep building on the defensive performances of the last month. The Colts kept an explosive Lakewood offense to 52 points by relegating the Piners to jump shots and preventing Lakewood to make a living on the offensive glass. If CBA can do both of those things and continue to get some shooting from supporting players like Sam Houston and Jack Boyan to go with Andree and Jack McGuire.
The Pick: CBA, 57-50