Boys Basketball – 2019 Shore Conference Tournament Championship Preview
Shore Conference Tournament Championship (Bracket)
Saturday, Feb. 23, 5 p.m.
At OceanFirst Bank Center, Monmouth University
No. 1 Ranney vs. No. 2 Manasquan
Admission: $10; Tickets go on sale at 3 p.m. at the arena box office
Ranney (23-3, 12-0 in Class B Central)
Head Coach: Tahj Holden, fourth season
Prior SCT Finals Appearances: 1 (2018)
SCT Championships: 1 (2018)
Road to the Final: Defeated No. 17 Jackson Liberty, 94-39; No. 8 Middletown South, 72-53; No. 4 Freehold Township, 78-50
Off the Bench
Manasquan (25-2, 13-1 in Class A Central)
Head Coach: Andrew Bilodeau, 11th season
Prior SCT Finals Appearances: 17 (1939-43, 1945-48, 1952, 1954-55, 1957, 1960, 1972, 1980, 2005)
SCT Championships: 6 (1941, 1945, 1947-48, 1955, 1957)
Road to the Final: Defeated No. 18 Toms River East, 96-64; No. 7 Red Bank Catholic, 79-59; No. 3 CBA, 70-64
Off the Bench
Saturday will be a bittersweet moment of sorts for this group of Ranney seniors and a happy one for the rest of the Shore Conference. It will mark the final time Bryan Antoine, Scottie Lewis, Ahmadu Sarnor, Alex Klatsky and Chris Autino will compete against Shore Conference competition and given Ranney’s 68-5 record against Shore Conference (four of the losses to Mater Dei Prep) over the last four years, few around the Shore will be all that sad to see them go.
There is one more team from the Shore that will have to deal with Ranney and that will be Manasquan on Saturday night. The Warriors played a near-perfect first half against CBA on Thursday night and hung on to beat the Colts, 70-64, to earn their shot against Ranney.
Manasquan is not lamenting having to play Ranney, either. On the contrary, coach Andrew Bilodeau and his team are looking forward to the chance at playing the No. 1 team in the state – a challenge that will give the Warriors a chance to show the state how good they are while proving to themselves they really can play with anybody in New Jersey.
The Team of Destiny?
Ranney’s story has been told many times. Antoine, Lewis, Klatsky and Autino came to Ranney as freshmen and as first-year starters, led the Panthers to a 22-4 mark and a trip to the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals. In each of the next three seasons, Ranney added to its core of players, most notably Sarnor as a sophomore in 2016-17. Last year, St. Anthony transfer Savior Akuwovo was a big part of Ranney’s first Shore Conference Tournament championship and Rumson-Fair Haven transfer Phillip Wheeler has filled those shoes in his first year with the team.
With Wheeler as a junior and freshman Elijah Perkins in the mix for Ranney this year, the Panthers are deeper than they have ever been and with the core now seniors, they are also as experienced as they have ever been. With that experience and depth – not to mention the talent – Ranney has lived up to its preseason billing as a team worthy of national attention and the favorite to the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions.
Ranney’s season includes a 3-1 record against teams ranked in the USA Today Top 20, including a win over defending T of C champion Roselle Catholic. The Panthers also defeated a Bergen Catholic team considered the favorite to win the Non-Public A championship.
Up until the Shore Conference Tournament, Ranney had not played a Shore Conference team outside of its Class B Central division. That was also the case last year, but last year’s Class B Central division included a Mater Dei Prep squad that was ranked in the state top 20 and was the No. 2 team in last year’s SCT field. Ranney had no such challenge from within the division this year and its three SCT games were also routs – 94-39 over Jackson Liberty, 72-53 over Middletown South and 78-50 over Freehold Township.
Antoine and Lewis have led Ranney for the last four years and Saturday will be one of the last chances to see the duo and potential NBA guards on a big stage in Monmouth County. Antoine is the newly-crowned all-time scoring leading in the history of the Shore Conference and after his 20 points in the semifinal win over Freehold Township he is sitting on 2,366 career points and averaging 22.2 per game this season.
Lewis, meanwhile, is putting up a shade under 18 points per game to go with 6.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.6 steals and two blocks while establishing a reputation as one of the best all-around defenders in the country. Both Antoine and Lewis will represent Ranney in the McDonald’s All-American Game in Atlanta on March 27 and Lewis also earned a selection to play for Team USA at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Or. on April 12.
Antoine and Lewis are two of five Ranney players averaging better than 10 points per game. Sarnor and Wheeler are each averaging 10.9 points per game and Klatsky is putting up 10.5 per game.
The Panthers are averaging 77.6 points per game this season and is approaching 100 wins in the last four years with an overall mark of 95-17.
Ultimate Underdog or Sleeping Giant?
Given Ranney’s success and pedigree, it would be convenient to bill Saturday’s game as a David-vs.-Goliath affair. That, however, would be dismissive of a Manasquan team that has more wins than any Shore Conference team this season (25) and whose 16-game winning streak matches Toms River North for the longest in the conference this season.
Manasquan has been racking up wins left and right this season and its most recent win was its biggest of the season to date. The Warriors took down CBA to reach the Shore Conference Tournament title game for the first time since 2005 and will now have a shot to win its first SCT title since 1957.
That win, however, will pale in comparison to a win on Saturday. Ranney has not been challenged over the last two years in this tournament and Manasquan is hoping it has the ability to change that.
Unlike Ranney, the Warriors do not rely a whole lot on seniors. They do, however, have two key seniors in 6-5 wing Brad McCabe and 6-6 forward Xander Korolik – both of whom came out firing in Thursday’s win over CBA. McCabe has been one of the Shore’s top all-around players this season at 14.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game and is a 1,000-point scorer.
Junior Alex Galvan has emerged as one of the Shore’s top forwards this season and is coming off a game in which he went toe-to-toe with another standout big man in 6-11 CBA senior Josh Cohen. Galvan went off for 21 points and eight rebounds in the win and scored 10 huge points in the fourth quarter to put the game away for Manasquan. The Louisville baseball commit is averaging 18.7 points and 10.3 rebounds, tops on the team in both categories.
Manasquan’s back-court trio of junior Kieran Flanagan, freshman Ben Roy and sophomore Casey Mulligan are all first-year varsity regulars and they have steadily improved over the course of the season. Flanagan is averaging 8.5 points and 3.1 assists for the season and 12.3 points and five assists since Feb. 1. During Flanagan’s recent surge, Manasquan is averaging 73.6 points per game.
Roy, meanwhile, is averaging better than 8.8 points per game thanks to a strong start to the season and a resurgence of late. The rookie averaged 11.4 points in his first five high school games and after enduring some growing pains throughout the bulk of the season, he has come on with 13.2 over Manasquan’s last six, including 17 in Thursday’s win over CBA and an even 16 per game during the SCT.
Roy and Mulligan have been handed a lot of defensive responsibility as young players, with the two typically combining to guard the opponents’ top wing player. Manasquan is primarily a man-to-man team and if the Warriors stay with that gameplan, look for Roy and Mulligan to shadow Antoine.
Manasquan is averaging its highest per-game scoring total (66.4) in coach Andrew Bilodeau’s 11 seasons at the helm, which is saying something considering the Warriors are on a run of seven straight Shore Conference division titles and have won two NJSIAA sectional championships during that span.
Advantages for Ranney
Talent: While Manasquan has a lot of talent by high school basketball standards, Ranney is a different level. Antoine is headed to Villanova, Lewis and Klatsky are going to Florida, Sarnor and Wheeler are Division-I-caliber athletes, Autino is a future college football player and Perkins is one of the state’s more promising freshmen. No team in the state has a more complete top seven than does Ranney and a lot of that is tied up in how good both Antoine and Lewis are.
Experience: Not only does Ranney have a core of seniors with high school experience but Lewis and Antoine have played at the some of the highest levels of amateur basketball. Last year was the first time this particular group made a run to a tournament championship as a high-school team but the novelty has worn off by now. As Lewis described it, this Ranney team is all business and any nerves that might have been a part of last year’s run should be gone.
Versatility: Again, Manasquan’s versatility is exceptional but one of the problems the Warriors could run into is that its preferred up-tempo pace could wind up playing into the hands of a Ranney squad that is even more athletic and dynamic in the open floor. If Manasquan wants to try to slow Ranney down, the Panthers have proven they can handle a slower, possession-by-possession game as well – both on the offensive and defensive ends.
The Big Game Gene: With little exception, this Ranney team has put its best foot forward on the biggest stages. In last year’s championship game, the Panthers held a quality Mater Dei Prep team to 28 points in a dominant performance. Although they lost to Roselle Catholic in the Non-Public B final, Ranney pushed the Tournament of Championship winner to the brink in one of the best games of 2018. As for this year, Ranney took it to Roselle Catholic in a 63-49 win at Brookdale – one of three wins over nationally-ranked teams in 2018-19.
Advantages for Manasquan
The Underdog Role: While there have been whispers among other Shore coaches suggesting that Manasquan can pull off the upset, the Warriors are still a considerable underdog heading into a showdown with a top-15 team in the country. Despite the reliance on some young players, this Manasquan team has an edge about it that should be an asset in a setting like the one it will face on Saturday.
Rebounding: Ranney’s rebounding has come and gone over the course of the season – sometimes even during the course of the single game, which was the case against a smaller Freehold Township team. Rebounding is perhaps Mansaquan’s greatest strength and the Warriors will have the ability, should Bilodeau choose, to play a lineup that includes McCabe (6-5) at the two while Korolik (6-6), Galvan (6-6) and junior Tim McEneny (6-7) play in the front court. Ranney’s only loss to a New Jersey team this year was against a Gill St. Bernard’s team that killed the Panthers on the offensive glass without the benefit of a size advantage. For Manasquan to win on Saturday it has to win the battle on the glass and the good news for them is the Warriors can definitely do it.
Pressure: As previously-mentioned, Saturday will be the last chance for Lewis, Antoine and Co. to leave an impression in front of a Shore Conference crowd. The OceanFirst Bank Arena has been known to suppress offense since the SCT final moved into the building in 2011 so with an air of finality hanging over the game for Ranney, maybe those two factors conspire to affect the Panthers. On the other side, there is absolutely no pressure on Manasquan to win this game. If the Warriors lose, that was to be expected and they can turn their focus to winning the Group II title. If they can pull it off, it will be one of the great triumphs in the history of the tournament.
Phillip Wheeler, Ranney: It’s pretty simple: if Wheeler has a good game, Ranney should win. If Wheeler has a big game, Ranney will roll. Wheeler is also the only player on Ranney to have faced Manasquan and he torched the Warriors last year as a sophomore in Rumson's win at Manasquan during the regular season. Manasquan’s defense might be able to slow Antoine and Lewis down but they won’t remain completely silent and even if they have off games, Ahmadu Sarnor is always there to pick up the slack. If Wheeler is also a factor, that will probably be too much for Manasquan to overcome.
Brad McCabe, Manasquan: When McCabe is on, Manasquan is almost impossible to handle. He was the best player on the floor during the first half on Thursday, leading the Warriors out to a 42-21 lead on a good CBA team. In the second half, he scored only two points and the Colts climbed back into the game. McCabe can catch fire from three-point range and at some point on Saturday, that will have to happen to give the Warriors some instant offense and unleash 6-5 senior’s killer instinct.
Last year’s championship game seemed like a certainty on paper but Ranney’s inexperience at Monmouth vs. Mater Dei’s championship experience of the prior two seasons did add some intrigue. This time around, it is harder to see Ranney losing but anyone who has seen Manasquan on its game won’t see it as impossible. If inexperience was a threat to Ranney’s crowning moment last year, perhaps the pressure to perform one last time is this year’s enemy.
Considering Ranney’s big-game pedigree, the Panthers are unlikely to be overcome by pressure. If Manasquan is going to win its first SCT championship in 62 years, it is going to be because the Warriors just flat-out outplay the No. 1 team in the state and maybe even beat them at their own fast-paced game.
While that possibility shouldn’t be discounted, it remains a long-shot. With five key players due back next year and a Group II title out there for the taking, Manasquan can get a lot out of Saturday, win or lose. Unfortunately for the Warriors, it is highly likely to be the latter.
The Pick: Ranney 68, Manasquan 56
Semifinal Picks Record: 2-0
Overall SCT Picks Record: 17-5