ABERDEEN TWP. - Matawan seniors Mike Dunne and Reggie Tawiah both watched their older brothers team up to help the Huskies win an NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II championship four years ago and both are similar players to the ones their brothers were at the same age.

The difference, according to the younger Dunne, is the mental toughness that the elder Matawan duo developed by playing in big games. If Wednesday's performance down the stretch against Middletown North is any indication, this group of Huskies have a mental makeup that is catching up to their talent.

Dunne scored 15 of his 22 points in the second half and Tawiah poured in 15 points to lead Matawan - the No. 10 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - to a 57-45 win over the Lions.

"Once we get tough mentally, it's going to help a lot on offense and defense," Dunne said. "We have a lot of young guys who are learning that and once we learn how to play mentally tough, especially in the fourth quarter, then we can get to that next level."

Matawan senior Reggie Tawiah. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Matawan senior Reggie Tawiah. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Wednesday marked the fifth game Matawan has played at home that was decided in the fourth quarter and the Huskies are now 3-2 in those games. The losses came against Rumson-Fair Haven and Union and prior to Wednesday, the Huskies did not have a close win over a team with a winning record.

"We wanted to prove why we are ranked," Tawiah said. "We knew they were ranked before the season and they have a great player, so this was a chance that we belong on this stage."

"I keep telling the guys, it shouldn't be enough just to be ranked number 10," Matawan third-year coach John Giraldo said. "When you're ranked the teams that aren't ranked are coming after you because they want your spot and if you lose one, you're out. You have to be consistent and you have to be able to beat other very good teams."

Middletown North took a 39-37 lead into the fourth quarter thanks to 18 points from junior standout Rob Higgins through three quarters. Matawan took a 44-41 lead on a three-pointer by sophomore Ethan Okello with 5:45 left in the game and shortly thereafter, Higgins left the game and did not return.

According to Middletown North coach Mike Iasparro, Higgins has been sick over the past several days and was fatigued when he came out of the game. He finished with 18 points, the lowest scoring total in seven games for the 1,000-point scorer.

With Higgins on the bench, Matawan went in for the kill. Dunne hit a short jumper to extend the lead to five, followed by a pair of free throws by Tawiah to make it 48-41. Senior Sky Cherry scored on a tip-in to cut the Middletown North deficit back to five, but Dunne answered with six consecutive free throws to push the Matawan lead to 54-43.

"The defensive side was what won it for us," Giraldo said. "We got down early and had to fight back. Once we got close and were able to take the lead, I felt like our defense took over and kept giving us an opportunity."

With Higgins on the floor, the Huskies battled to stay in the game by sticking senior Ramon Estrada on the Lions' top scorer and doing their best not to help off the rest of the shooters. Higgins scored six of his points on fastbreak baskets and attempted only two free throws, giving him four field goals in the halfcourt offense with Estrada matched up on him.

"I thought Estrada was the most important player for us today," said Giraldo of his senior stopper, who finished with five points. "I don't know how many points he finished with, but his defense on Higgins allowed us to play the way we wanted to. We came in and we wanted to guard them without helping if we could and because of the job he did, we really didn't have to help off their shooters."

"Last year, Reggie was the guy we stuck on the other team's best player," Dunne said. "Having Ramon be that guy relaxes Reggie. It calms him down and lets him do his thing on offense. On defense, with him shutting down his man, we are holding good teams like Rumson in the 40's instead of the 60's."

Dunne, Tawiah and Estrada are the three seniors leading Matawan during its 5-2 start to the season, but the sophomore class has also been a key ingredient. Okello scored eight points off the bench, while center John Beukers added six points, nine rebounds and five blocks in the middle. Fellow sophomore Darrell Rogers ran point guard along with Dunne.

"Both Reggie and I remember watching the championship team in 2014 and it takes time to gain that experience and that toughness," Dunne said. "We played four sophomores on opening night and it took them a game to realize that they are good enough to just go out and play without trying to overthink things. Now that they are getting more experience with every game, I think it's making us a more complete team."


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