MIDDLETOWN - Bryan Antoine has played more games and hit more shots in the St. Mary's School Gymnasium than he can remember, so even when his Ranney boys basketball team was the visiting team in that very gym against Mater Dei Prep on Monday night, Antoine felt right at home - even in the most tense of moments.

Antoine hammered home a game-tying dunk on a drive with 1:30 left and scored the go-ahead floater with 44 seconds to go to cap a 28-point performance and propel Ranney - the No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - to a 65-61 win over No. 2 Mater Dei Prep.

"With Team Rio in AAU, I've been in the same situation (in this gym) earlier in the summer season," said Antoine, who attended St. Mary's prior to high school. "It wasn't really anything new for me."

Ranney senior Savior Akuwovo came up with the game-sealing block in the final seconds Monday at Mater Dei. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Ranney senior Savior Akuwovo came up with the game-sealing block in the final seconds Monday at Mater Dei. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Antoine's furious finish was reminiscent of his performance at Mater Dei last year, when he scored 15 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter to help Ranney beat the Seraphs for the first time. He scored only 11 points in the first meeting between the teams, a 59-45 Ranney win on Jan. 11. On Monday, Antoine surpassed that mark with 12 points in the first quarter alone and also closed out the win with 11 points in the fourth.

"In the first half, I found myself open for a couple of jumpshots," Antoine said. "In the second half, I felt like I had to attack the basket more."

"I anticipated (Antoine) would have his opportunities and that he would need to be efficient tonight," Ranney coach Tahj Holden said of Antoine, who finished . "I didn't think he had to go 20-for-25, but I thought if he got his 12 or 13 shots, got to the free-throw line, then that would be a great game for him. We just happened to get him going and once you get a guy like him going, you don't want to go away from it."

With its second win over Mater Dei in the Shore's 1-vs.-2 showdown, Ranney clinches no worse than a Shore Conference Class B Central division championship for the second straight year and can win the program's first even outright division title with a win over either St. Rose on Tuesday or Henry Hudson on Thursday.

"We're looking to win championships," junior Scottie Lewis said. "At the beginning of  my three years here, coach Tahj said the goal was to win championships and we're always looking to deliver for coach and the program."

After Antoine gave his team a 63-61 lead with 44 seconds left to go, Ranney held Mater Dei on the next possession and won a jumpball to get the ball back with 23 seconds left. Mater Dei senior Kyle Cardaci, however, continued his clutch fourth quarter by stealing the ensuing inbounds pass to give the Seraphs another shot.

Ranney's defense was put to the test throughout the night and passed its final challenge when senior Savior Akuwovo blocked a driving attempt by Mater Dei junior Alexander Rice in the final seconds, which led to a layup by junior Ahmadu Sarnor as time expired.

"Any time you can win a game on defense, as a coach, you love that," Holden said. "Offensively, that stuff takes care of itself, but defensively, adding Savior down there to anchor our defense, we really did a great job of communicating at the end. I was really pleased to see us get over that hurdle because I don't know if we make that play last year."

Mater Dei put up 35 points in the first half en route to a 35-26 halftime lead over the Shore's No. 1 team, but the Panthers responded by scoring 12 straight points to open the quarter and go up, 38-35. Ranney outscored Mater Dei, 21-5, in the third quarter to take a 47-40 lead into the fourth, with Lewis scoring six of his 14 points during the third.

"My shot wasn't falling early and it got to a point where I wasn't worried about scoring because I knew I had teammates who could score," Lewis said. "I knew, being the playmaker that I am, I could make plays for everyone else. Defense was my main focus going into the second half when I realized I wasn't hitting my shots."

The home team had an answer, however, behind barrage of three-pointers. Cardaci hit three of Mater Dei's five threes in the fourth and scored 11 of his team-high 18 points in the final eight minutes. After Antoine opened the fourth with a steal and a dunk to push the Ranney lead to nine, the Seraphs hit five straight shots - three by Cardaci - as part of a 13-4 run that tied the game at 53-53.

Ranney went up 57-53 on two pairs of free throws by Antoine and Lewis before Cardaci came back with his third three of the quarter to trim the deficit back to one point. Antoine then found Lewis for a backdoor layup, but sophomore Jamir Watkins had an answer. The 6-foot-6 forward stepped out and hit a three-pointer that bounced off both the rim and the back board before dropping in to tie the game with just over two minutes to play.

Watkins then gave Mater Dei a 61-59 lead with a pair of clutch free throws before Antoine answered on the other end with a crossover to the middle, a drive and a two-handed dunk to tie it back up at 61-61.

"Actually, on that play I was supposed to go to the right side, but something happened, I bobbled it and I went to the middle and it was open," Antoine said.

Mater Dei got off to its hot start thanks to 6-9 senior center Adam Afifi, who scored 11 of his 13 points in the first half. Rice also scored eight of his nine points in the first half and senior Yasin Pretlow poured in seven of his nine before halftime. Mater Dei shot 5-for-12 (41.7 percent) from three-point range in the first half and 10-for-27 (37 percent) for the game.

Afifi also added seven rebounds and Rice chipped in five rebounds and six assists for Mater Dei.

Akuwovo and Sarnor added 10 points apiece for Ranney, with Akuwovo also grabbing nine rebounds. Lewis also handed out five assists to go with his 14 points and capped the 12-0 third-quarter run with a 360 dunk.

Lewis played in his second game since missing two weeks due to a sprained right ankle, while junior Alex Klatsky returned from a three-game absence while undergoing concussion protocol. Klatsky hit a pair of three-pointers to finish with six points and also dished out three assists.

"The last two or three weeks have been tough for us," Holden said. "We've had some guys go down with injuries, so finally having everybody back healthy - this was Alex's first game back and Scottie's second game back - and having those guys healthy coming down the stretch is really important for us."

Mater Dei will finish its regular season with division games against St. Rose and Point Pleasant Beach before a showcase game against Montclair Immaculate on Sunday at the Primetime Shootout in East Orange. Cardaci will have a chance to reach the 1,000-point milestone before the start of the Shore Conference Tournament next week after finishing Monday at 972 career points.

After St. Rose and Henry Hudson, Ranney will wrap up its regular season at the Primetime Shootout on Saturday against Riverdale Baptist from Upper Marlboro, Md.

Regardless of how those games go, Monday's win on the road to clinch a regular-season sweep over Mater Dei all but guarantees Ranney the No. 1 seed in next week's Shore Conference Tournament. Mater Dei is likely to be the No. 2 seed and the two are also lined up to be seeded Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, in the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B bracket, according to NJ.com's latest release of statewide power points.

That means the two teams could play each other again in the SCT final and the sectional semifinals, which would only add to a rivalry that just started three years ago with the simultaneous arrival of Lewis and Antoine at Ranney and coach Ben Gamble at Mater Dei.

"The rivalry started our freshman year and ever since, no matter if it's at our place or here or in the playoffs, there is always going to be intensity from both teams," Antoine said. "Mater Dei is also one of the best teams in the Shore Conference. I have a lot of respect for them. They played very well and I expected today would be like all the other times (we played them)."


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