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Shore Conference Tournament Championship (Bracket)

Saturday, Feb. 29, 7 p.m.

At OceanFirst Bank Center, Monmouth University

No. 1 Manasquan vs. No. 3 Toms River North

Admission: $10; Tickets go on sale at 3 p.m. at the arena box office

Watch the Game Live on SSNTV

 

Manasquan (26-1, 14-0 in Class A Central)

Head Coach: Andrew Bilodeau, 12th season

Prior SCT Finals Appearances: 18 (1939-43, 1945-48, 1952, 1954-55, 1957, 1960, 1972, 1980, 2005, 2019)

SCT Championships: 6 (1941, 1945, 1947-48, 1955, 1957)

Road to the Final: Defeated No. 17 St. John Vianney, 59-43; No. 9 Ranney, 59-43; No. 4 Holmdel, 44-40

Probable Starters

PositionNo.PlayerYearHeight
PG1Kieran FlanaganSr.6-1
SG10Ben RoySo.6-0
SG2Casey MulliganJr.5-10
C20Tim McEnenySr.6-8
PF25Alex GalvanSr.6-7

 

Off the Bench

PositionNo.PlayerYearHeight
G/F13Jack CollinsJr.6-5
Forward11Connor WalshJr.6-5
Manasquan sophomore Ben Roy. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

 

Toms River North (24-3, 14-0 in Class A South)

Head Coach: Rory Caswell, ninth season

Prior SCT Finals Appearances: 1 (1996)

SCT Championships: None

Road to the Final: Defeated No. 14 Matawan, 80-65; No. 6 Marlboro, 114-85; No. 7 Red Bank Catholic, 60-42

Probable Starters

PositionNo.PlayerYearHeight
PG3Jakari SpenceSr.6-1
SG14Jarrod PruittSr.5-11
C42Najae HallenbeckSr.6-6
PF32Mike VansprangSr.6-5
SF1Colin BakerSr.6-3

 

Off the Bench

PositionNo.PlayerYearHeight
Guard2Jaiden FraserSo.6-1
Forward13Lamir MitchellSo.6-3
Toms River North senior Jakari Spence. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

 

Background

Saturday will mark the end of a long wait for one of the two boys teams making the trip to OceanFirst Bank Arena. While Manasquan has won three NJSIAA sectional championships since Andrew Bilodeau took over as head coach and reached the SCT final a year ago, the Warriors have not won the Shore Conference Tournament title since 1957.

If ever there was a year to end the 63-year drought, this would appear to be it. Save for two games against Holmdel, no Shore Conference team has come within single digits of the Warriors this season and they also recorded a 27-point win over the same Holmdel team earlier in the year for good measure.

On top of the 26-1 record and dominance within the Shore Conference, the Warriors are as healthy as they have been in a while with senior Alex Galvan back in the lineup after missing five games with a shin bruise – his second extended absence due to two unrelated injuries this season. The Warriors’ lone loss of the season was a 45-43 defeat at the hands of Roselle Catholic – the No. 3 team in the state – with Galvan out with a sprained ankle in early January.

Manasquan senior Alex Galvan. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Manasquan’s perfect 21-0 mark against Shore Conference competition this year includes a 78-73 win over Toms River North in the WOBM Christmas Classic championship game on Dec. 30, with Galvan and sophomore Ben Roy both scoring 26 points in the win.

Toms River North’s championship drought, meanwhile, is as long as its program’s existence. The Mariners have been to the final one other time in their history and that came in 1996, when they lost to Christian Brothers Academy. The program has also never won an NJSIAA sectional championship so Saturday is a chance to hang the program’s first postseason tournament championship banner.

In order to break that spell, Toms River North will have to beat a Manasquan team that squashed the Mariners with a dominant fourth quarter after Toms River North was within four points through three. The two Mariners senior stars were just that in the game, with Jakari Spence scoring 30 points and Najae Hallenbeck adding 20 and 12 rebounds.

Toms River North senior Najae Hallenbeck blocks a shot by Marlboro junior Aleksy Friedman. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Advantages for Manasquan

Length and Athleticism: Toms River North is not hurting for size or athleticism but the Mariners have not come across many teams that can match, or in this case exceed, them on those terms. The two games Toms River North played in which it was giving up length and athleticism to this degree was the first Manasquan meeting and against Rutgers Prep – both of which were double-digit losses to two of the top six teams in the state.

Defense: It’s hard to argue for any team other than Manasquan as the Shore’s best defensive squad. The Warriors showed how suffocating they can be by holding Holmdel scoreless for a crucial 7:45 stretch of the third and fourth quarters, allowing Roy, senior Kieran Flanagan and junior Connor Walsh to rally the team to a come-from-behind win. Toms River North’s defense is solid and the Mariners can score against a good defense, but if the game really does come down to the better defense winning the day, the edge goes to Manasquan.

The Close-Call Effect: Near losses like the one Manasquan experienced against Holmdel yesterday could be a harbinger of things to come, but have a sharpening effect for a team in Manasquan’s position. The Warriors had a tough road to the final, especially considering Galvan’s absence in the first two games, and finding a way to pull out Thursday’s slugfest vs. Holmdel said a lot about Manasquan’s late-game toughness.

Unfinished Business: Manasquan put forth a great effort in last year’s final, losing to Ranney, 70-60. The Warriors were right there at the end despite quiet offensive games from Galvan and Roy, who will be eager to bounce back from last year’s performances, not to mention finish the job of winning Manasquan its long-awaited title after coming oh-so-close a year earlier.

Manasquan senior Kieran Flanagan and Toms River North senior Colin Baker. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Advantages for Toms River North

The Stars: It might be hard to fathom a team having a better one-two punch than Roy and Galvan but Spence and Hallenbeck have delivered every single time they have taken the court, including against Manasquan. Either having a bad game is almost unimaginable and it was a big reason the Mariners took a loss to Lincoln – a game in which Spence scored only nine points. Other than that, the two are a virtual lock to score at least 40 combined points and that is a great start for any team.

The Hot-Team Effect: While Manasquan may benefit from having to win a close, defensive struggle, Toms River North has the benefit of simply playing great basketball lately. The Mariners – not the top-seeded Warriors – have been the tournament’s most dominant, with an average margin of victory of 20.7 points and a offense that put up 114 points in a game and 60 on a bad night against a physical RBC squad.

Galvan’s injury: Galvan said he is pain free and unencumbered by the shin bruise that kept him out for three weeks, but the 6-7 forward appeared to tire over the course of Thursday’s semifinal – understandable for someone who has not been able to practice and keep his fitness level during a three-week absence. Getting Galvan back for the finish of the tournament I, no doubt, a huge boost for Manasquan but it is a version of Galvan who will be working his way back into top form over the next week-and-a-half.

Baker’s revenge: Colin Baker fouled out in only 10 minutes Thursday night and according to his head coach, Baker will be fired up to make a difference on Saturday. He will have to make sure he is not so fired up that he gets into more foul trouble, but a locked in Baker would be a huge plus for Toms River North after Manasquan held him to two points in the first meeting.

 

X-Factors

Manasquan: The three-point shot

The Warriors don’t necessarily need to catch fire from beyond the three-point arc to win – they hit zero in Thursday’s win over Holmdel – but when Roy, Flanagan, Jack Collins and Casey Mulligan can score over the top of the defense in addition to slicing through it, it puts the opponent in a near-impossible predicament. Manasquan is just good enough of a shooting roster that it could be a big factor but just inconsistent enough that a cold-shooting game could leave the door open for Toms River North.

Toms River North: The third scorer

The few times Toms River North has struggled this season, it has been when Spence and Hallenbeck had to do most of the work offensively – which includes the loss to Manasquan. Baker is the usual suspect to step up as the third scorer with his near-10-points-per-game average, but sophomore Jaiden Fraser was the guy last game with his 14 points off the bench and even game the Mariners a fourth scorer in the 114-85 win over Marlboro by scoring 19. It’s hard to know what the magic number is for the third scorer without knowing, for sure, how the game will play out and how much Spence and Hallenbeck will score, but the mid-teens seems like a good place to start.

 

The Prediction

As previously mentioned in the post, there are two ways to look at Saturday’s game in broad terms. One is the team that has been No. 1 all year, imposed its will in an early-season matchup and has been more battle-tested in the tournament stepping up in its crowning moment. The other is the team that has played the best basketball over the last three games keeps that trend going against the No. 1 seed and finishes of the tournament as both the hot team and the champion.

If you like scenario one, you favor Manasquan. If scenario two appeals to you, Toms River North is your pick. It’s anyone’s guess which narrative holds more water but it should be said that funny things have happened in this building since the championship game moved to Monmouth in 2011. First it was the lid on the rims, then it was CBA’s late-game collapses against Rumson-Fair Haven and Mater Dei Prep, followed three years later by Brad McCabe’s three-point barrage to put a scare into Ranney in 2019.

The stranger the game, the more Toms River North is likely the benefit and there is a reason for that: because at just about every turn this year, Manasquan has been the better team. Yes, Toms River North has looked more impressive but the Mariners also likely got the more favorable draw and will now have to ramp up their game against a team that might just have a shot to make a run at the Tournament of Champions title in a few weeks. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s settle this one. Watch for Roy and Flanagan to set the pace and turn in big games against a zone-heavy Toms River North defense.

This Pick: Manasquan, 66-60