LITTLE SILVER - The first-two rounds of the Albert E. Martin Buc Holiday Classic have looked more like a tune-up than an exhibition for the No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, but for Mater Dei Prep senior Elijah Barnes, the Buc Classic has been a trip down memory lane.

One day after helping turn away one of his former high school teams, Barnes and Co. beat another on Wednesday when the Seraphs took down Central Regional, 61-37, to advance to the Buc Classic championship game Friday against Sayreville.

Barnes scored 12 points, grabbed eight boards and blocked three shots Wednesday against the last team he played for prior to transferring to Mater Dei before the 2015-16 school year. The Princeton signee also scored 16 points Tuesday in a first round win over Freehold Boro, where he spent his freshman year.

Mater Dei junior Elijah Barnes, pictured last season. (Photo by Mark Brown, B51 Photography)

"As soon as the brackets came out, I was getting texts about playing Freehold and Central," Barnes said. "It's all fun. The Freehold guys, those are like my best friends so I talk to them almost every day. The Central team is a little different than it was when I was there, but I still talk to Maks (Gruszecki). It was good to see them and play against them the last couple days, especially getting the wins."

Although he made only three shots from the field Wednesday, Barnes made them count. He knocked down two second-quarter three-pointers from the left corner to help the Seraphs open up a double-digit lead and later threw down a thunderous two-handed dunk on a fastbreak.

While Barnes supplied the highlights, the Mater Dei defense carried the day in the win. It took Central 18:44 of game clock to make its first field goal of the game and the Seraphs held the Golden Eagles to 8-for-30 shooting (26.67 percent) from the field while forcing 15 turnovers - including 11 in the first half.

Central kept the score reasonably close in the first half by cashing in at the free-throw line. The Golden Eagles shot 16-for-20 in the first half and trailed Mater Dei, 32-16, at the break.

"I broke down every one of their individual tendencies for our players and guys took it for granted," Mater Dei coach Ben Gamble said. "I wanted to keep their guards out of the paint, but they were able to get to the paint, get fouled, get to the line and make some shots. Our fundamentals just weren't good - not as sharp as I'd like them to be defensively."

Mater Dei built its lead as high as 28 during the early part of the fourth quarter. Junior Yasin Pretlow scored nine of his game-high 16 points in the second half to lead the Seraphs, while junior Kenny Jones chipped in eight points and senior Elijah Mitchell contributed six points, six rebounds and five assists - including a loud, one-handed dunk of his own..

Gruszecki led Central with 12 points, including the team's first field goal of the game with 5:16 left to go in the third quarter. Gruszecki ended the drought by nailing a three from the left wing as he was fouled by his former teammate, Barnes.

Pretlow is one of two new starters and four new players to play for Mater Dei on Wednesday. Pretlow transferred from Roselle Catholic, 6-foot-8 center Adam Afifi (six points) transferred from a program in Egypt, junior Brandon Wilson (four points) transferred from Howell, 6-foot-8 senior forward Rajae Muhammed (four points) transferred from Penns Grove. Holmdel transfer Kyle Cardaci will also join the rotation once he is eligible in mid-January.

"The new guys are doing a good job so far and I think the big thing is every single one of them is better than when they first joined the team," Barnes said. "I think that's going to continue and I think when all is said and done, we're going to be even better than we were last year."

"The bar is set here," Gamble said. "I want to win another Shore Conference title. We were a jump shot away from playing for a (NJSIAA) South Jersey (Non-Public B) championship. We're not going backward, so those are the goals again.

"I don't think we're as good at this point as we were at the same time last year, but we have more depth, more size and we are going to be a different team in the last six weeks of the season. But we have a long way to go and a lot of work to do to get there."


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