Boys Basketball – Dean’s Late-Game Heroics at RBC Deliver Red Bank Long-Awaited B North Title
RED BANK -- George Sourlis won Shore Conference division championships so routinely while head coach of the Rumson-Fair Haven girls basketball team that he stopped celebrating them when his team clinched them.
When Sourlis emerged from a victorious postgame visitors locker room Thursday night at Red Bank Catholic High School, he was drenched and the sounds of celebration beyond the cracked door were obvious.
In his second year as the head boys basketball coach at Red Bank Regional, Sourlis and his team are winning, they are winning a lot and they are enjoying it.
On Thursday night, another electrifying performance by junior Zayier Dean sparked the Bucs -- ranked No. 6 in the Shore Sports Network Shore 16 rankings -- to a 69-64, overtime win over crosstown rival Red Bank Catholic to clinch the Shore Conference Class B North division championship.
Red Bank won a share of the public division title in Class B North in former coach Scott Martin's farewell season in 2021-22, but had not won an outright, overall division title since 2006-07. To close it out, the Bucs avenged a two-point loss to RBC on Jan. 6 and did so in RBC's home gym.
"This game mattered," Sourlis said. "We were trying to do something for the school tonight that we haven't done in a long time. To have it to ourselves is really special.
"Hopefully, winning a division title here will just become customary. There will be bigger goals and this team has bigger goals still ahead of us. Where I come from, you win a division title and the reaction is, 'Okay, now what?' That sounds arrogant, but that's the way (Rumson girls basketball) was built and that's the way we're trying to build this. For tonight, thought, this was not old hat. This was special."
Dean scored 20 of his season-high 32 points after halftime, including six in overtime to close out the victory. His floater in the lane as he was fouled gave Red Bank a 65-64 lead with 14 seconds left and proved to be the winning basket.
Along with his 32 points, Dean also contributed six rebounds, five assists and three steals.
Red Bank faced a 59-54 deficit with 1:30 left in the fourth quarter after RBC ripped through a 12-0 run to erase a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit of its own. Juniors Ryan Prior and Sean Saxton each scored five points in the run and senior Pasquale Sabino -- who led the Caseys with 22 points -- capped the burst with a putback that forced a Red Bank timeout with 1:37 to go in regulation.
The Bucs regrouped and drew two points closer on a pair of free throws by junior Ryan Fisher. On the following Red Bank possession, Dean drove and kicked the ball out to freshman Justin Valentino, who nailed a game-tying three-pointer with 55 seconds left.
Dean got off the final shot of regulation, but his fadeaway three-pointer from right in front of the Red Bank bench hit the back iron.
RBC started overtime off on the right foot, with senior Colin Cavanaugh hitting a three-pointer to make it 62-59. Cavanaugh's overtime three represented all of his scoring on Thursday -- five days after he scored 35 points on 11 three-pointers against Ranney in Red Bank's gym.
Dean responded with a pair of free throws, but RBC pushed the lead to 64-61 when Sabino hit senior Tyler Burnham for a layup.
Red Bank again cut the deficit to one on a drive by Dean with a minute left in overtime. The Bucs then caught a break when Burnham decided to take an open layup attempt with 20 seconds left rather than burn more clock and he missed it.
Dean brought the ball up and attacked right away, finishing through contact for a 65-64 lead with 14 seconds left.
"When your best player is playing his best, this is usually the result," Sourlis said. "You need your best players to be at their best in order to compete at a high level, and tonight we was. He was special tonight. We all were."
Although Dean missed the ensuing free throw, Red Bank forced an RBC turnover on the next Caseys possession and Fisher returned to the free-throw line to make a pair of shots for a 67-64 lead with 5.9 seconds left.
Red Bank Catholic called timeout with 3.3 seconds left after advancing the ball to midcourt, but the Caseys against turned the ball over on the inbounds pass. Senior Braydon Kirkpatrick coasted in for a layup as time expired to cap off the win as the Red Bank student section stormed the court.
Fisher backed up Dean's performance with 14 points, while senior Jameson Ackerman added nine on three three-pointer and Kirkpatrick pitched in eight points and three assists.
Prior finished with 16 points for RBC and Burnham added 14 in the loss. Burnham torched the Bucs for 30 points and nine rebounds when the Caseys beat Red Bank, 53-51, at Brookdale Community College on Jan. 6.
"The thing that makes Burham so tough for us is not just the size, but he's got a great touch," Sourlis said. "He can finish. If he couldn't finish, it wouldn't bother us so much, but he finishes. He is just a freak of an athlete, in a good way."
Before Red Bank trailed in the fourth quarter, it trailed at halftime, 25-22. Sourlis referred to it as the worst half his team had played in over a month.
"That's how we have to play and I think it's why we're here," Sourlis said of his team's play in the second half. "Realizing it's like the old phrase: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It's just harder for other people to guard us when the ball is moving, we have multiple weapons involved, we have a great kid that can get to the rim and we've got guys who can shoot it. But if we are standing around, watching Zayier dribble, anybody can guard us. We've got to move and we did that in the second half."
The second season under Sourlis at Red Bank has been a major contrast compared to year one. A season ago, the Bucs started 4-1, but lost eight games in a row late in the season to stumble to an 8-15 finish.
This season, Red Bank's fortunes began to change when Dean transferred in from Ocean Township High School where he laid the ground work for his 1,000-point career and his ability to rise up in a game like the one Red Bank played on Thursday.
"He has helped us a lot this year," Kirkpatrick said. "I don't know where we would be without him. He is always looking to pass first and then he always gets to his shot. I think he is one of the best players in the Shore."
"He is a great player, but he is also a great leader," Ackerman said of Dean.
The Caseys again got off to a strong start that included a win over Christian Brothers Academy for the second straight season. That win over the Colts at home proved to be crucial in the Bucs beating Rumson-Fair Haven for the Class B North title by one game.
This year, Red Bank has built off that strong start and has played some of its best games while trying to close out this division championship. The Bucs will head into the Shore Conference Tournament at 17-3 with their only losses coming at Manasquan, at Rumson-Fair Haven and to RBC on a neutral floor.
"Playing in the toughest division in the Shore, we know we had to be ready, so we worked all summer," Kirkpatrick said. "When it comes down to it, we run our plays, we defend, we're well-coached, and those things to wins."
With a payback win over RBC, a head-to-head win over CBA and a division championship in what might be the Shore's most competitive division, the Bucs have stated their cases as a potential top three seed -- a coveted spot since the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds could avoid presumptive No. 1 seed St. Rose until the championship game.
Beating out Manasquan for the No. 2 seed would seem difficult for Red Bank considering Manasquan won the head-to-head meeting between the teams, 65-34, but Red Bank has since used that game as a learning experience that has clearly had the desired effect considering the Bucs at 16-2 since. Manasquan also lost at home on Thursday to Ranney -- a teams Red Bank defeated in December -- to leave the door open for another team to challenge for the No. 2 seed.
"I think we needed to get whooped just to show us we weren't all that we thought we were," Kirkpatrick said of the blowout loss at Manasquan on Dec. 16. "We won on opening night, we thought everything was great, and then we got humbled. We knew it wasn't over yet, but we had to get better. We went back to work and we started playing team basketball."
"It was a wake-up call," Ackerman said. "Our coach (Sourlis) told us after the game, 'If we don't get our stuff together, this is what our season is going to be like.' This could be every game if we don't start playing as a team, so we started playing as a team."
Wherever the Bucs land, it will be a long way from missing the SCT altogether in 2023. On top of that, Red Bank has all but locked up the No. 1 seed in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III bracket after sneaking into the field as a No. 15 seed a year ago.
"This is something we envisioned," Kirkpatrick said. "Me and Jameson and the other seniors, we have been playing together since around kindergarten. We always wanted to be known around here as a really good team, so this is great. We're not done yet. We're going to keep working."