Boys Basketball – Brick Memorial Wins Class A South Share With Defensive Gem vs. Central
BRICK TWP. -- Brick Memorial senior Luke Braaten had hoped everything would come together for him and his Mustangs boys basketball team a little sooner than his senior year, but patience and perseverance has paid off for the 6-foot-7 center and his squad.
Now, with a long-awaited championship within their grasp, the time for waiting is over. The Mustangs are playing for championships the rest of the way.
Braaten was a defensive force Tuesday night and junior teammates Brian Starrett and Jeremiah Crispin led the offensive effort that helped the Mustangs roll to a 45-29 win over Central Regional, clinching Brick Memorial no worse than a share of the Shore Conference Class A South championship.
Brick Memorial will return to its home floor Thursday night against Southern and can wrap up its first outright Class A South championship since 2009 with a win over the Rams.
"This week is crazy because I have been looking forward to a week like this my whole high school career," Braaten said. "Now it's here and we're actually doing what we have been talking about the whole offseason, so it's exciting."
"It's been a tough couple years for us and a tough ten or more years, I guess, for the program without winning one," Starrett said. "We're just hoping to make a little bit of history for the program."
Crispin came off the bench to scored a team-high 12 points for Brick Memorial while grabbing six rebounds. Starrett, meanwhile, ran the offense and poured in 11 points while handed out six assists, with senior teammate Jason Ellerbrock pitched in nine points while pulling in six rebounds of his own to go with a pair of blocks.
Brick Memorial's offense hit its zenith during the second part of the first quarter and carried it all the way inside the three-minute mark. During that stretch, the Mustangs outscored Central, 19-0, to turn a 5-4 deficit into a 23-5 lead.
"We picked up the pace a bit and got some turnovers," Brick Memorial coach Mike Pelkey said. "Brian played awesome tonight. We knew they were going to faceguard (leading scorer) Josh (Michigan) so Josh had to be a team player tonight. He had to set actual ball screens so Brian could come off, because they are not going to switch. Then, we have our best decision making with the whole lane to determine what he wants to do."
Central answered with four straight points to end the half and eight more to start the third to cut the deficit to six, but that was as close as the Golden Eagles would get the rest of the way.
On the defensive end, Braaten was the show. He finished with only four points, but cleaned up with 12 rebounds and 10 blocks, including seven swats during the first half.
With Brick Memorial concerned about Central's three-point shooting, particularly that of junior point guard John Truhan, the Mustangs were aggressive running the Golden Eagles off the three-point line and funneling the ball into the paint to challenge Braaten.
"Our mentality on defense was to contest, contest, contest," Starrett said. "We wanted to get out on shooters. It's a different mentality when you have a rim-protector like Luke because you really trust him down there. You can really fly by guys spotting up for threes because if they get into the paint, he is there to meet them."
"I'm a shot-blocker, so I'm always being challenged," Braaten said. "Our guys did a great job playing aggressive defense and when somebody got into the paint, they knew I had their back."
The defensive approach worked, as only two of Central's starters scored, with senior Justin Soranno (10 points) and classmate Anthony Musso (five) combining for only 15 points.
"We did a little bit more of a run-and-jump thing tonight, trying to get it out of Truhan's hands," Pekley said. "He killed us last game, when he had 11 (points) and three threes. So we tried to keep the ball out of his hands because he is their orchestrator.
"They made a little bit of a run at the end of the half. They came out and made some adjustments, and that's when we threw them that zone. We just stayed in front of our guys, made them shoot contested threes and if they were going to drive, we had our guys there."
Freshman Jaycen Santucci gave Central a lift off the bench by scoring a game-high 14 points, giving both teams in Tuesday's matchup a high scorer from outside the starting lineup.
Brick Memorial has finally hit its stride down the stretch of the 2021-22 season after an uneven 2021 campaign. The Mustangs started the truncated 2021 season hopeful to make the most of the shortened schedule, but Braaten suffered a season-ending injury in the fourth game and the sophomore-heavy Mustangs struggled to gain their footing the rest of the way.
This season, with players like Starrett, Josh Michigan, Dorian Alston and Crispin making the jump from sophomore to junior year and Braaten healthy again after missing his sophomore year and most of his junior year, Brick Memorial is primed to win at least one title, with an eye on the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III section as well.
"We are definitely looking forward to playing in our (state tournament) group," Braaten said. "We have definitely had it in our minds during the summer and the offseason that we want to make a run in the state tournament and compete to win a championship."
Before that, however, Brick Memorial would like to finish off the Class A South championship by beating Southern and win a rivalry game vs. Brick Township on Saturday before shifting focus to the Shore Conference Tournament.
"We have been talking about winning A South and it's still not over," Pelkey said. "We are just thinking one at a time. We have a big game Thursday night and if we do get Southern, then it's Brick on Saturday and the tournaments after that. So we're just trying to stay focused on the goal at hand, which is one game at a time."