Mater Dei Uses Stifling Defense to Beat Ranney for 3rd Time and Reach SCT Semifinals
MIDDLETOWN - In the third installment this season of a burgeoning rivalry that may soon come to dominate the Shore Conference boys basketball hierarchy, top-seeded Mater Dei Prep leaned on its stifling defense to beat Ranney for the third time in Sunday's Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals.
The Seraphs picked up a 47-39 win over the eighth-seeded Panthers (20-3) at Brookdale Community College's Collins Arena to extend their school-record winning streak to 19 games. Mater Dei (22-1) advances to face fourth-seeded Toms River North in the SCT semifinals on Tuesday at Pine Belt Arena, where a victory would put the Seraphs in their first SCT final since 1984.
Both teams have come from completely off the radar to become major factors in the Shore Conference in the course of a season. The hiring of head coach Ben Gamble, a former assistant at perennial powerhouse St. Anthony, and the addition of nine transfers who make up Mater Dei's entire rotation have turned them from an afterthought into a team expected to win its first SCT title, while a group of star freshmen have taken Ranney from complete obscurity to one of the most exciting young teams in the state.
The two teams compete in Class B Central as well as the NJSIAA Non-Public South B bracket, so there could be plenty of clashes on the horizon between two programs on a dramatic rise.
"I've said from the first game, this is the beginning of a new rivalry down the Shore,'' Gamble said. "We're 3-0 against them, but they've got some guys who can give you fits."
A defensive effort that forced 23 turnovers and held Ranney to 37 percent shooting (13-for-35) from the field offset an afternoon in which Mater Dei had 16 turnovers of its own and shot 17-for-45 (37.8 percent) from the field. Junior center Elijah Barnes had a team-high 13 points along with four blocks, and guard NyQuan McCombs added 12 points in the win.
Ranney stuck with its man-to-man defense for longer stretches before sinking into the 3-2 zone it has used in the previous two meetings with Mater Dei, keeping the Seraphs off kilter and forcing them to ride their own defense to get the win.
"Being so familiar with Ranney, I don't think they took them as seriously as I took them seriously,'' Gamble said of his team. "We were pretty lethargic today. We didn't move the ball as well. I think our defense was still there, but offensively we just weren't clicking the way we normally do."
Freshman guard Bryan Antoine had a game-high 14 points, freshman guard Scottie Lewis added 10 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks, and freshman center Chris Autino added 10 points in the loss for Ranney, whose three losses this season are all to Mater Dei.
After trailing 3-0 to start the game, Mater Dei scored five straight points and then never trailed again, grabbing a 22-12 lead at the half. The Seraphs set the defensive tone from the outset, holding the Panthers to 3-for-15 shooting in the half and forcing 12 turnovers. Ranney also didn't help its cause by going 6-for-15 from the foul line before the break.
McCombs slowed down Ranney's leading scorer, the explosive Antoine, holding him to 0-for-3 shooting from the field in the first half and 3-for-10 in the game.
"I say it over and over again, McCombs is the best on-the-ball defender in the Shore,'' Gamble said. "He wasn't that sharp offensively today as he normally is, but defensively he showed so much grit. I had him a couple times on Antoine too when he had three fouls. He was able to stay in front of him and give him a hard time."
"I like stopping other teams' star player because it gets our team going,'' McCombs said. "I just wanted to get in his legs and make him not want the ball."
Gamble's primary concern was stopping Lewis, a multi-talented player who can affect the game on both ends. He rotated five different defenders on him, limiting him to eight shot attempts in the entire game.
"I wanted to keep fresh bodies (on Lewis),'' Gamble said.
"They have a select group of players that do most of their scoring, so we just wanted to wear them down,'' Barnes said.
Ranney had the lead down to 24-19 with 4:10 left in the third quarter after a jumper by Antoine, but Barnes responded with a 3-pointer. The Panthers were right in it heading into the fourth quarter, however, after freshman guard Alex Klatsky buried a corner 3-pointer to cut it to 32-26 in the final seconds of the period.
Lewis then drew a roar from the capacity crowd at Brookdale with a steal and dunk that trimmed the lead to 35-30 early in the fourth quarter. Mater Dei Prep responded with a 7-0 run fueled by a pair of defensive stops and highlighted by a 3-point play by McCombs that pushed the lead to 40-30 with 4:56 left in the game.
"We really had to win with the defense,'' Gamble said. "They got that thing down to maybe five, and we made a defensive play, then made another defensive play to get us going, to get us a little separation."
Barnes then scored in transition off a Ranney turnover to push the advantage to 12 points, and Ranney never got closer than eight the rest of the way.
"That's how we work,'' Barnes said. "Our offense comes from our defense, getting steals and pushing the ball."
Now a team that already has a division title under its belt is looking to add the program's first SCT title. Being favored to accomplish something that has never been done at Mater Dei has not fazed the new group at all. The Seraphs have not lost to a Shore Conference opponent all season.
"We don't look (at being the No. 1 seed) that much,'' McCombs said. "We just play whoever is in front of us."
Mater Dei Prep 47, Ranney 39
Ranney (39): Lewis 4 2-4 10, Antoine 3 7-9 14, Mahoney 0 0-0 0, Klatsky 1 0-0 3, Geraghty 1 0-0 2, Autino 4 2-7 10, Shah 0 0-0 0, Metzger 0 0-2 0. Totals: 13 11-22 39.
Mater Dei (47): Pierre 0 0-0 0, McCombs 4 3-5 12, Harris 3 0-0 8, Mitchell 2 2-4 6, Elliott 2 1-2 6, Barnes 5 2-3 13, Jones 1 0-0 2, Green 0 0-0 0. Totals: 17 8-14 47.
Ranney (20-3) 6 6 14 13 - 39
Mater Dei (22-1) 13 9 10 15 - 47
Three-pointers: (R) Antoine, Klatsky. (M) Harris 2, McCombs, Elliott, Barnes. Fouled out: None.