LITTLE SILVER -- For the first 16 minutes of the second Boys Basketball Shore Conference Tournament semifinal at Red Bank Regional High School, Manasquan and Holmdel will neck-and-neck with a spot in Sunday's championship game at Monmouth on the line.

Then, as it has done in each of the past five years when the SCT final is within reach, Manasquan leaned on its winning culture and the players who are fully bought-in on it.

With one half standing between them and a sixth straight Shore Conference Tournament finals appearance, the Warriors made a key defensive adjustment and turned to junior Griffin Linstra on the other end to deliver the knockout shots in a 66-43 win over seventh-seeded Holmdel that sends No. 3 Manasquan back to the SCT championship game.

This marks the fourth time a team has reached the championship game in the 88-year history of the Shore Conference Tournament. Manasquan is the third program to accomplish the feat, with Neptune reaching seven straight finals two different times in the late-forties-early-fifties and again in the 1960's. Christian Brothers Academy was the last team make it six straight finals in a row, which the Colts did from 1992 to 1997.

Manasquan junior Griffin Linstra guarded by Holmdel senior James Vallillo. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Manasquan junior Griffin Linstra guarded by Holmdel senior James Vallillo. (Photo: Tom Smith |

"We say culture wins," Linstra said. "We don't just do it for ourselves. We do it for the alumni -- the players who started this run, the players who won championships back in the 1950's, and everyone who has ever put on the uniform. I know the 2019 guys still come to our practices and we're still really close with them. You look out into the bleachers and a lot of them are there, so it's just there is a lot of support and that matters."

"That's good players," Manasquan coach Andrew Bilodeau said. "We have had good players and that helps. We'll reflect on all that when the season ends. We have an outstanding group. They are great in the classroom, great in the film room, great in practice. They are really into it and we just have great culture. They really like each other and they just give you everything they have."

Linstra led Manasquan with 21 points, nine rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots, with 17 of his 21 points coming in the second half. The 6-foot-4 junior was one of four Warriors players to reach double-figure scoring, with freshman Rey Weinseimer scoring 13 and seniors Jason Larned and Alex Konov adding 11 each. Larned also grabbed seven rebounds, blocked two shots and scored nine of his points in the first half.

Manasquan freshman Rey Weinseimer operates under the watch of Holmdel sophomore Jack Vallillo. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Manasquan freshman Rey Weinseimer operates under the watch of Holmdel sophomore Jack Vallillo. (Photo: Tom Smith |

In order to earn a sixth straight trip to the final, Manasquan had to get through a Holmdel team that the Warriors handled, 59-37, in December at Manasquan, although that win came with Holmdel missing newly-minted 1,000-point scorer Nick Seeloch while he was recovering from an appendectomy.

Seeloch joined the 1,000-point club on Holmdel's first possession of the game, layup up a pass from classmate Ben Kipnis to briefly halt the game for a celebratory photo before getting back to the semifinal.

Manasquan jumped out to a 21-11 lead before Holmdel closed the half on a 17-8 run, capped by an ankle-breaking hesitation move into a jumper by Seeloch that cut Manasquan's lead to 29-28 at the break. That shot gave Seeloch 16 points at halftime and sent Manasquan to the locker room looking for answers.

"We would have loved to play against (Seeloch) the first time, because at Manasquan, we like to play against the best competition," Linstra said. "He hit a lot of shots in the first half, but in the second half to put Luke on him and Jason on Kipnis and it worked for the better."

The Warriors came up with a defensive switch, option to move Larned off of Seeloch and onto Kipnis -- Holmdel's primary ball-handler and a bigger, more physical guard than the quick, slashing Seeloch. To stop Seeloch, Manasquan called upon senior Luke Roy, who used his quickness and hard-nosed mentality to essentially keep the ball out of Seeloch's hands for the entire third quarter. Seeloch managed five points in the fourth quarter to finish with 21.

Holmdel senior Nick Seeloch drives through traffic. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Holmdel senior Nick Seeloch drives through traffic. (Photo: Tom Smith |

"Luke has probably been our biggest surprise this whole year, just with his defensive ability," Linstra said. "I have been playing sports with Luke since I was in third grade. We still play soccer together. He has always had that mentality to be a great defensive player and Manasquan just breeds kids like that."

"It took me 16 minutes to figure it out," Bilodeau joked. "Sometimes these guys have to overcome their head coach and with these guys, that's an everyday occurrence.

"I thought Luke did a wonderful job. He has been a no-catch guy a big part of the season. Him and Jason Larned are like that. I thought Larned did a great job on Kipnis in the second half. He is a bigger body, so that switch made sense."

With Seeloch locked down by Roy, Larned all over Kipnis and Linstra on Hornets top scorer James Vallillo, Holmdel could not muster the offense necessary to keep up with Manasquan. The Warriors started the third on a 10-2 run to go up, 39-30, and after junior Ire Adesina hit a three-pointer to pull Holmdel within 39-33, Manasquan came right back with a 10-1 run to close the quarter and outscore the Hornets, 20-6, in the quarter.

Manasquan senior Jason Larned. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Manasquan senior Jason Larned. (Photo: Tom Smith |

Linstra scored 11 points and picked up two assists in the third, capped by a three-point play in the final seconds that sent Manasquan to the fourth with a 49-34 lead.

"We really came together and started playing team basketball," Linstra said. "It led to me and everybody else being more aggressive and having each others backs. For me, there was also the motivation of losing to Holmdel in the sectional final in soccer. That definitely didn't feel good so it was a little bit of payback."

While Manasquan had to adjust to a Holmdel lineup that included Seeloch this time around, the game followed a similar script to the one that played out in December. Manasquan outscored Holmdel, 20-12, in the third quarter to stretch a three-point halftime lead to 11, then outscored the Hornets, 16-5, the final quarter.

Manasquan won the second half of the December battle, 36-17, and won Wednesday's second half, 37-15.

"We're a very good second half team," Linstra said. "We just had each other's backs and started to play better."

During its run of six straight SCT championship appearances, Manasquan has been the No. 1 seed three times, the No. 2 seed once and the No. 5 seed once before making it as a No. 3 seed this season. The Warriors are 3-0 in the final as the No. 1 seed and 0-2 in the other two games.

In order to break that trend and win its first tournament of this current run as a seed other than No. 1, Manasquan will have to beat No. 1 St. Rose on Sunday. The good news for the Warriors is they played the Purple Roses closer than any other team in the Shore Conference has this year when the two rivals met on Jan. 22.

The bad news is that margin of victory for St. Rose was still 19 points.

St. Rose has steamrolled through the Shore Conference to the cusp of its first ever SCT championship, with only Manasquan standing in the way. While reaching the final has been par for the course for the Warriors, they have done it this year with senior point guard Ryan Frauenheim missing the entire season with a torn ACL and reining Shore Sports Network Player of the Year Darius Adams transferring to national power LaLumiere for his junior season.

To pull off an upset Sunday under those circumstance would make this year's run stand out above the rest.

"That was a very good test for us," Linstra said of the first meeting between the teams. "It's good to play a team like that in the regular season because we could feel them out. Their length is really good, but now we're used to it. We played well in that second half, so we're going to look to build off that and make a run at them."

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