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PISCATAWAY -- The five Marlboro boys basketball senior starters began competing for championships together as sophomores and from an early point in their high-school careers, they knew who they were as individuals and they knew who they were as a team.

That served the Mustangs well in bouncing back from devastating losses to end their sophomore and junior seasons, it served them well during the many successes of a 28-win 2021-22 season, and it served them well again in coping with the latest and final season-ending loss on Sunday.

The Marlboro seniors were disappointed with the result at Jersey Mike's Arena in Piscataway -- a 70-63 win for Elizabeth in the Group IV championship game -- but they played exactly like the team that will go down as the best in Marlboro history.

"It's something legendary," said senior Jack Seidler, who finished his career as Marlboro's all-time leading scorer by scoring a team-high 19 points on Sunday. "It hasn't really set in because I feel like we just kind of expected to get here, but so many things can happen in a season: injuries; one game that doesn't go your way and you're out; you miss every shot and you're out. Anything can happen, so I think once we're a little further removed from the season, we are going to really recognize what we did and how special this year was."

"We tried to take a deep breath, a step back and say, 'Look what you did," Marlboro coach Mike Nausedas said. "It's going to be tough for anybody to duplicate what happened this year: 28-3, WOBM (Christmas Classic), A North, Shore Conference, sectional championship. There was nothing at Marlboro and now there is all that. These kids are legends now. No one will ever do what they did. I hope they do, but this is hard."

Marlboro jumped out to an early lead, led at halftime and held a four-point lead early in the third quarter before Elizabeth went off for an 18-4 run that gave the Minutemen the game's first double-digit lead, 52-42, early in the fourth quarter.

Elizabeth extended its lead to as many as 13, but Marlboro made the Minutemen uncomfortable in the last two minutes. A three-pointer by senior Zack Molod cut the Elizabeth lead to 63-55 with 1:47 left. Molod then stole the inbound pass and found Seidler for another three to pull Marlboro within 63-58 with 1:34 to go.

"All season, we have just had the motto to fight until it's over," Seidler said. "We did that against CBA (in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals), we did it against Howell, Trenton, Lenape -- over and over again, we just kept fighting. We know the game's not over until the final whistle, so even though we were down by 10 with two minutes left, it's not over yet."

After one of two free throws for Elizabeth, senior Jon Spatola had two three-point attempts rim out, the second of which was a wide-open look from the right wing.

Another three rimmed out on Spatola on the next Marlboro possession, followed by a miss by Molod. Senior Vin Spatola hit two free throws and Seidler capped the scoring with his second three-pointer in a span of 1:30.

"We're happy with how we played," Seidler said. "We feel like we played well on both sides of the floor. They just hit more shots and that's basically what it came down to."

"We fought to the end," Nausedas said. "They just made more shots than we did."

"I don't think anyone in our locker room should have their head down about what we accomplished this season," senior Jay Ratner said. "It was just a great ride and I'm happy that I was able to play three years of varsity at Marlboro."

While Marlboro couldn't quite make enough shots to get to the finish line, Elizabeth hardly missed. During the second half, the Minutemen were 10-for-15 on shots outside the paint, with sophomore London Carson scoring all 21 of his points on 8-for-8 shooting after halftime.

"They made almost every shot in that fourth quarter," Ratner said. "Congratulations to them, they are a great team and they just made shots when they had to. Unfortunately, ours didn't fall as much as they needed to."

Junior Sebastian Robinson, meanwhile, led Elizabeth with 22 points, five rebounds and six assists while also guarding Seidler in the second half. Robinson scored 14 of his team's 27 points in the first half to help keep the Minutemen within striking distance at the break, with Marlboro leading, 28-27.

"It's obvious what Sebastian did in the first half," said Elizabeth coach Phil Colicchio, who is headed to his seventh T of C as a head coach and first with Elizabeth after taking Linden six times. "He kept us in the game, he was making incredible shots. What hopefully doesn't get overlooked is he slowed (Seidler) down in the second half. We put Sebastian on him and he shut him down. (Seidler) is a hell of a player and he was going anywhere he wanted to in the first half."

"(Seidler) was making tough shots, so really, we just had to make sure we put two hands in his face when he got around the basket," Robinson said. "We really felt like our offense would take care of itself, but we had to lock in on defense, especially against him."

Altogether, Elizabeth shot 9-for-17 from three-point range, with Carson going 3-for-3 and junior Etienne Richeleiu (17 points) connecting on four of seven.

"(Colicchio) plays games with his starting lineup," Nausedas said. "He doesn't always start his best players. I watched hours and hours of film and they would start a guy and not bring him in the game again. We knew their best lineup was with (Richeleiu) and (Carson) out there as shooters and we knew we had to guard them. They just move so well without the ball and we just lost them and that was the key."

Sunday marked the second straight game in which Elizabeth hit the 70-point mark after not reaching 70 in any of its first 23 games. The Minutemen played a rugged schedule that included three losses to Roselle Catholic -- the No. 2 team in the state -- and their six losses landed them the No. 9 seed in the North Jersey Section 2, Group IV section.

Elizabeth won four games on the road to win the sectional title and took advantage of a lone home game in the Group IV semifinal, in which the Minutemen beat Ridgewood, 72-53.

"It was a lot of ups and downs," Robinson said. "We took a couple losses throughout the season, but we always knew we could win states. We just had to keep working and getting better."

With the victory, Elizabeth is back in the Tournament of Champions as the Group IV champion for the first time since 1991, when Colicchio was an assistant for the Minutemen prior to taking the head job at Linden. Elizabeth earned a trip to the Group IV final in 2020 by winning the Group IV semifinal, but the remainder of the NJSIAA Tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

"When I first took the job, I told the kids we won a Tournament of Champions and I had to show them the trophy to prove it, because they didn't believe me," Colicchio said. "I played here in the 80's and coached here after when we were the best public school in the state, and I wanted to help us get back there after Elizabeth had fallen on some hard times."

"They had a chip on their shoulder," Nausedas said. "The COVID year, they were supposed to be in this game and they didn't get the chance. Kudos to them and coach Colicchio."

Marlboro, meanwhile, was not nearly as proficient as Elizabeth was from beyond the arc, going just 4-for-18, with Seidler going 2-for-3. Despite their struggles from beyond the three-point line, Marlboro still finished 51 percent (25-for-49) from the field for the game.

Four of Marlboro's starters finished with at least 10 points and Vin Spatola pitched in seven as well. Seidler capped his career as Marlboro's all-time leading scorer with 19 points, while Jon Spatola went for 17 points, seven rebounds and three assists to cap his standout high-school career.

Molod and Ratner each added 10 points for Marlboro, which got out to a 9-2 lead with baskets from four of the five starters. Vin Spatola converted a three-point play to open the scoring, followed by scores from Jon Spatola, Seidler and Molod.

Spatola also spent most of the game guarding the 6-foot-3 Robinson, who showed why he averaged 22 points per game as a junior by hitting contested jumpers from several spots on the floor after Marlboro made it hard for the Minutemen to get to the basket.

"Jon was face-guarding him and it was hard for him because there is a big difference in size," Nausedas said. "We moved Jack on him and then he started to find other guys. We did a good job, they just made shots -- big shots."

Elizabeth also helped its slow shooting start by earning second chances on the glass. The Minutemen won the rebounding battle, 34-23, and owned a commanding 17-6 advantage on offensive rebounds.

"I tried to fight down there, some of them were kind of chippy and I couldn't really get my hands on them," Ratner said. "Some of them got tipped out and instead of Jon or Zack coming away with it like they have been doing, it would go right to one of their guys. They were tough, long and they battled but I thought we battled too."

Despite the struggles dealing with Elizabeth's length and overcoming red-hot second-half shooting, Marlboro was a matter of inches on either of Jon Spatola's three-point attempts from cutting Elizabeth's lead to three points with a minute to go. The Mustangs showed their resolve in tournament wins over Howell, South Brunswick, Trenton and Lenape and although they met their match Sunday, it was not without exhibiting their usual fight until the final buzzer.

"I thought we were going to win the game," Nausedas said. "If we could have got a stop -- we never think we are going to lose a game and if we could have got just that one stop, who knows? It just didn't go our way. We were right there."

Marlboro's seniors will graduate as the school's best team ever, with record in wins (28) to go with the program's first ever outright Class A North division championship, first ever Shore Conference Tournament championship and first ever NJSIAA sectional championship.

"I wanted to stay at home and put Marlboro on the map," Seidler said. "We have been playing together since third grade and we really feel like we had something special. Chemistry is a big part of basketball and our starting five has probably the best chemistry in the state. We really feel like we did something amazing, so we're not going to sit here with our heads down, because even getting here was surreal. It sucks that it's over, but we'll move on."

Considering how the past two years ended, Marlboro's 2022 ending was cheery by comparison. The Mustangs lost at the buzzer in the 2020 Central Group IV championship to South Brunswick and again in the last second of overtime to Manasquan in the 2021 Shore Conference final.

This season ended with a tough loss, but not before this group of seniors took the program to new heights.

"We're definitely upset that it's over because it was such a great ride," Ratner said. "But no one in there had their heads down. A lot of people got to speak and there was no sense of anger in there. We were upset we lost, but we played until the final buzzer when we were down 10 with two minutes left. We played as hard as we could and we are proud of what we accomplished this season."

Nausedas is now through 10 seasons as head coach of the program and since he took over, the Mustangs have reached two Shore Conference Tournament finals, one unofficial Shore Conference final in 2021 and two NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV finals. Prior to his arrival, Marlboro had never reached any of those program milestones -- to which he credits new assistant coach and 2017 graduate P.J. Ringel and Ratner's older brother, Alex, who graduated in 2020.

"Nobody really knows what goes on here," Nausedas said. "I don't think any coach has lasted ten years in a row at Marlboro. It's not an easy place to be. We came in here 10 years ago and we built something. We had one division championship in the seventies and that was it, and in five years we're in the Shore Conference final. Every year, we're winning and we're getting players to stay.

"That's the thing: this team is real. They are from Marlboro. No one is transferring here. All these teams have transfers, and we have guys who stuck it out. They stayed home, they played together and to look at where we were and where we are now, it feels good."

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