Boys Basketball – 2023 Shore Conference Tournament Semifinal Preview: St. Rose, Manasquan Enter as Heavy Favorites
From the start of this year’s Shore Conference Tournament, the narrative for the tournament semifinals was already in place: two team (which two would be determined on the court, of course) would win at least two impressive games an charge into the semifinals on Valentine’s Day looking to play the role of heartbreaker – one against St. Rose and the other against Manasquan. The tournament started with the expectation that both of the top seeds would turn back all comers, but now once the semifinals are set, it is time to start talking ourselves into the possibility of one of the top seeds getting beat.
A similar situation happened in 2017, when defending champion Mater Dei Prep and second-seeded Ranney rolled into the SCT semifinals as heavy favorites to meet in the final. Marlboro had other plans and shocked sophomore-heavy Ranney to reach the championship game for the first time in program history.
The scenario is similar this season, although Ranney will be playing the role of underdog this time. Both top seeds are younger than their upset-minded opponents, with no seniors in the first seven players in St. Rose’s rotation and Manasquan playing three seniors out of seven in its rotation. Raritan, meanwhile, is all seniors and will mostly play only its five starters, barring foul trouble, while Ranney starts three seniors – two of whom are among its top three scoring options.
More than any point during the tournament, Tuesday is a time to dream big for Ranney and Raritan and come 6 p.m., we will all find out if reality can match the vision.
Shore Conference Tournament Semifinals
Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023
At RWJBarnabas Health Arena, Toms River North
No. 2 St. Rose (21-2) vs. No. 11 Ranney (15-9), 6 p.m.
The regular season gave us a sneak peak at what this matchup looks like in real life and if the previous results are any indication, the sand in the hour glass is about to run out on Ranney. The first meeting was somewhat of a throw-away since St. Rose was still without transfers Gio Panzini, Peter Mauro and Evan Romano, while Ranney was still waiting on its big transfer, Jahlil Bethea, to become eligible. St. Rose maintained a double-digit lead through most of the game and won, 61-43. In the second game, St. Rose raced out to a fast start, withstood a strong second quarter from Ranney and pull away for a 67-53 win with both teams at full strength.
In the home loss on Jan. 26, Ranney held Matt Hodge to six points, but the 6-foot-8 junior added 13 points and six assists while two of his teammates had big games. Panzini scored a season-high 20 points, while freshman Jayden Hodge drained 18 to help drive the St. Rose offense in the win. On the Panthers side, Isaac Hester (12) and Drew Buck (five) combined for just 17 points, with Bethea going for 21 despite sitting a stretch of the first and second quarters with two fouls. During the Shore Conference Tournament, the Hester-Buck duo is averaging 40.7 points through three games, with the Hester-Buck-Bethea trio averaging a combined 56.
It figures to be a difficult undertaking for the Ranney trio to put that number up against a St. Rose team that has only given up 56 points in a single game once this season, which came against Roselle Catholic – the top-ranked team in the state. In addition to Roselle Catholic, Ranney and CBA are the only other teams this season to score 50 points against the Purple Roses, so the Panthers are part of select company at this point in the season. With three weapons like Hester, Bethea and Buck, plus a dangerous spot-up shooter in sophomore MeSean Williams, Ranney has the offensive talent to stretch St. Rose’s defense and get to the 50-point mark that it will likely take to threaten the Purple Roses.
The challenge against St. Rose, at this point in the season, is holding down all of its offensive weapons while also pouncing on chances to score. The Roses get out and run, they can grind out possession, they can score on the offensive glass, they have some streaky three-point shooters and they get production off the bench. Ranney will have an athleticism and size deficiency in this game that will have to be made up with the sheer ability of Hester, Buck and Bethea, while the Panthers will have to be disciplined in their defensive game plan. If all goes well, Ranney will have a shot to win with the Shore’s best offensive player going right now in Hester.
With two other game-changing players alongside him, Ranney is now the greatest threat to breaking up the St. Rose-Manasquan final and while that threat is a substantial one, it is still going to be hard for the Panthers to get a hold of the Roses on Valentine’s day without feeling the thorns. The Pick: St. Rose, 64-57
No. 1 Manasquan (20-4) vs. No. 4 Raritan (19-1), 7:45 p.m.
If there was any doubt that Raritan would be ready for the spotlight, the scrutiny and the pressure of the postseason as a one-loss, top-five team, the Rockets passed the test with flying colors over the first two rounds. Against a high-scoring Red Bank Catholic team, Raritan held the Caseys without a field goal over the last 8:40 of the game to put the finishing touches on a 45-36 win in the round of 16. In the semifinals, the Rockets scored the first nine points and kept their foot on the gas, rolling to a 57-37 win over a Central team that had just ended Middletown South’s 15-game winning streak.
It should be no surprise that the mental side of playing in big games against a step up in competition was right in Raritan’s wheelhouse: the Rockets start five seniors who have been playing together for most of their childhoods and came into the year with not only varsity experience, but winning varsity experience. That mental and physical toughness has fed the 19-1 start, but to make it 20-1 on Tuesday, Raritan will need an extraordinary effort to go with all of that.
Manasquan is, far and away, the best team Raritan will have played by the end of Tuesday night and the only way the Rockets will play somebody even close to as good or better than the Warriors is if Raritan advances past Manasquan either on Tuesday to face St. Rose or in the NJSIAA Group II Tournament to get to face Camden. Like Raritan, Manasquan returns most of a 2021-22 starting lineup that experienced winning and in the case of Manasquan, none of those returning starters are seniors yet and they won 25 games and a sectional championship a year ago.
This year, Manasquan has already made it to 20 wins and if not for a series of close losses to Linden, Union Catholic, St. Rose and, to some extent, Roselle Catholic, that record could be even better. Junior point guard Ryan Frauenheim has been a dead-eye shooter lately and sophomore star Darius Adams has been on a scoring tear lately, averaging just under 24 points in Manasquan’s last 10 games – including 24.5 per game in the two SCT games. Junior Alex Konov is another shooter who can break a game open if he gets rolling, so Raritan will have to be aware of three players who can stretch the floor at one time.
For Raritan to have a chance, the Rockets seniors have to control the Manasquan seniors, which means Matt Agar, Jack Coleman and Jack O’Leary – the three best rebounders and most physical players for Raritan – will have to make sure Jack Dettlinger and Quinn Peters are not imposing their will on the game. Peters will do most of his damage around the basket, while Dettlinger can stretch the floor if it’s available while also getting after it on the glass. Teams also have to mind sophomore Griffin Linstra, who hasn’t looked to score much lately, but takes what is available and is an excellent passer.
On offense, Raritan is a streaky shooting team, with Billy Tigar the biggest three-point threat on the floor. Mike Diller, O’Leary and Coleman can all score from the perimeter as well, but Tigar is the one who can go prolonged stretches banging three-pointers. To get him open looks, Mike Diller and O’Leary will have to be able to shake defenders with and without the ball to get the Manasquan defense moving, which the Warriors do extremely well.
For a team that is 20-1, Raritan will have little margin for error if it wants to pull off the massive upset and if a team has little room to make mistakes, a coach in Denis Caruano’s position would take a senior-heavy team with experience every time. This game is going to be way faster than any Raritan has played yet this year and while the Rockets have shown an ability to adapt and compete, doing enough to win will be an entirely different matter. There may not be an upset Tuesday like the one Marlboro authored vs. Ranney in 2017, but we can realistically hope for a semifinal like the one Holmdel played against Manasquan in 2020: take the game to the fourth quarter with the outcome in doubt and make the No. 1 seed earn it down the stretch. The Pick: Manasquan, 53-44
SCT Quarterfinal Picks Record: 4-0
2023 SCT Picks Record: 17-5