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TOMS RIVER -- Manasquan boys basketball coach Andrew Bilodeau has had a common refrain when his young team has won a big game during this season.

"Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated."

The closest thing to rumored demise of Manasquan would be a No. 6 ranking in the Shore Conference at one point this season as opposed to the No. 1 spot the Warriors have held down in recent years, but such is life in a program whose standard is now winning multiple championships -- no excuses.

On Thursday night, Manasquan got a chance to make its case as the Shore Conference's best team by beating the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament and moving within one win of again sitting on the conference throne.

Manasquan freshman Darius Adams. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Manasquan freshman Darius Adams. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Freshman Darius Adams sparked a fast start and hit big shots down the stretch to help the fifth-seeded Warriors fight off No. 1 Red Bank Catholic, 57-53, Thursday at RWJBarnabas Health Arena to advance to a third straight official Shore Conference Tournament championship.

Factoring in last year's unofficial Shore Conference Playoff championship, Manasquan has now advanced to the Shore Conference championship game for the fourth straight season and will seek a third consecutive championship.

"All of us thought we could win this game," Adams said. "Obviously, no one expects us to, but the competition we played earlier in the year really got us ready for the Shore Conference and we just want to dig in and lock in."

Adams went off for a game-high 26 points with 13 coming in each half. Adams and sophomore teammate Alex Konov combined for 19 points in the first quarter to stake Manasquan to a 23-9 lead and the Warriors crew the lead as high as 17, 33-16, during the second quarter.

"Mentally, we were ready," Adams said. "Defense, rebounding, sharing the ball – those are the things we talk about and we were able to do tonight. My teammates were setting me up and I was just fortunate to make some shots when we needed them.

"It’s confidence and they run a lot of plays for me, so I owe it all to my teammates."

Red Bank Catholic, however, closed the half with a 10-2 run and by the end of the third quarter, the Caseys had chopped Manasquan's lead all the way down to 46-44. RBC even got one point closer on the first possession of the fourth quarter, but never drew even the rest of the way.

Adams had a lot to do with that, starting with a deep three-pointer that he hit to stretch the Manasquan lead back to 49-45. Manasquan's defense continued to come up with stops during the early part of the fourth and eventually, Adams started a march to the free-throw line once RBC was over the limit.

The freshman went 7-for-8 from the line in the fourth quarter to help Manasquan close out the game after knocking down a pair of threes earlier in the half.

"He looks very comfortable out there," Solomon said. "Everyone can see it. He’s just a scorer and an athlete. He’s a basketball player and he’s going to do good no matter what stage he’s on."

Manasquan sophomore Alex Konov. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Manasquan sophomore Alex Konov. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Adams's performance upped his SCT scoring averaged to 18.5 points over four games, including back-to-back 20-plus-point outings. Manasquan has played the entire season without senior and two-time Shore Sports Network Player of the Year Ben Roy due to a torn ACL Roy suffered in October.

Adams was initially primed to fit in alongside Roy in 2022 and be groomed as the next great Manasquan scoring guard. Instead, Adams has had to grow up a little faster and is beginning to look like a clear go-to option for a team with plenty of scoring ability in its starting five.

"Nobody can fill Ben Roy’s role, but I am just going to try to be helpful to the team in any way I can," Adams said. "It’s been a great experience. My coach has trusted me to play my game."

Konov scored eight of his 10 points during Manasquan's red-hot first quarter, while Solomon also added 10 points and six rebounds for the Warriors. Sophomore Ryan Frauenheim, meanwhile, scored seven points and handed out eight assists while running the offense.

Freshman Griffin Linstra scored just two points, but led Manasquan with six rebounds, handed out four assists and spent most of his time on the floor defending bruising, 6-foot-5 Red Bank Catholic point forward Alex Bauman.

Manasquan sophomore Ryan Frauenheim guarded by Red Bank Catholic freshman Ryan Prior. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Manasquan sophomore Ryan Frauenheim guarded by Red Bank Catholic freshman Ryan Prior. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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After Manasquan shut Bauman and the Caseys down early, the tournament's No. 1 seed came to life late in the second quarter by taking over with its size. Bauman, Meeks, sophomore Gioacchino Panzini and senior C.J. Ruoff started winning the battle for the boards and the Caseys chipped the 17-point deficit to one with a 29-13 run.

"Athletes are athletes and they (RBC) are a special and talented group," Bilodeau said. "They are gigantic. I thought our assistant coaches did an outstanding job of managing the foul trouble and the matchups and the kids just toughed it out."

Manasquan appeared to have the game in hand with a 56-48 and under a minute remaining, but a three-pointer by Bauman, two missed Manasquan free throws, a layup by Ruoff and a turnover by Manasquan gave the Caseys the ball back trailing only 56-53 with 24 seconds left.

Red Bank Catholic chewed up most of the remaining clock trying to get into its offense and Ruoff took a long three-pointer from the left wing that drew the back of the iron with eight seconds remaining.

Frauenheim made the first of two free throws with 5.9 seconds left, which indeed put the game away.

Ruoff finished with a team-high 19 points, Bauman went for 15 and Panzini poured in 11 to head up RBC's offensive attack. Meeks was the only other scorer for the Caseys, finishing with eight points.

"RBC’s a great team," Solomon said. "They have a bunch of great athletes who are very talented. We knew those punches were coming. It’s like bracing for impact. We knew it was coming and we were ready for it. We knew it was all about how we responded to those punches and I think we responded great tonight."

Manasquan's march toward a potential fourth straight conference championship will end, one way or another, Sunday at RWJBarnabas Health Arena against a familiar opponent, although not to most of the players on this year's Warriors team. No. 2 Marlboro knocked out No. 6 Christian Brothers Academy in the second semifinal, setting up a rematch of last year's Shore Conference Playoff championship game.

With four of the five starters from this year's team in its starting lineup and all five playing important minutes, Marlboro took undefeated Manasquan into overtime and fell on a layup with one second left. Although none of its current healthy players played a major part in that game, Manasquan can bank on seeing a motivated Marlboro squad looking to avenge last year's loss, even if the payback is reserved for the jerseys more than the players themselves.

As for Manasquan's motivation, the Warriors are keen on proving the doubters wrong and squashing those "rumors" of their demise.

"It means a lot for a young team," Solomon said. "A lot of people have been doubting us. Even from the beginning of the season, we believed in ourselves and we never stopped believing in ourselves. We knew that we can make it to the big stage and we know the job’s not finished yet."

Manasquan senior Matt Solomon goes up in traffic against Red Bank Catholic. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Manasquan senior Matt Solomon goes up in traffic against Red Bank Catholic. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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