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Five Shore Conference boys teams have made it through to the NJSIAA section final round and will be competing for three of the four sectional championships in Central Jersey over the next two days. That means that two sectional finals will come down to not only a Shore team vs. another Shore team, but division rivals squaring off with a trophy on the line.

In both division showdowns – one in Group III and the other in Group II – the home team has swept the season series to date and will need to make it a clean sweep for 2020 in order to win a championship. In the other, Marlboro is playing in its first ever sectional championship game in front of its home crowd against a team that is two years removed from a one-win season.

The action tips off Monday with the Central Jersey Group III championship and continues Tuesday with two more champion games for the Shore locals. Here is a quick look at the three matchups.


Central Jersey Group III Championship

Monday, March 9, 2020

No. 7 Neptune (16-13) at No. 1 Wall (23-6), 5:30 p.m.

If the first two games between these two Class B North rivals are any indication, Monday’s Central Jersey Group III championship game should go down to the wire. Wall won the first meeting at home, 52-47, and the second by a 57-50 score in Neptune as part of a 14-0 run through the B North schedule. Just as the Crimson Knights repeated as B North champions, they will look to repeat as sectional champions after ending a 46-year drought last year.

Wall junior Pat Lacey, tracked by St. John Vianney sophomore Nate Williams. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Wall junior Pat Lacey, tracked by St. John Vianney sophomore Nate Williams. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

While Wall has experience winning a championship, Neptune has experienced postseason heartbreak. Its last game, however, might be a sign that after back-to-back losses in the sectional semifinals in 2018 and 2019, the Scarlet Fliers’ fortunes may be turning around in 2020. Neptune has not won a sectional title since reaching the Group III final in 2012, which is also the last year Neptune played in a sectional final.

Wall is getting its usual, well-rounded contributions, with junior Pat Lacey having an especially-stellar state tournament. Lacey is coming off a 33-point game in a win over Allentown in which he also put up nine rebounds and five assists to help the Crimson Knights advance past the semifinal. Junior Logan Peters posted 15 points and 15 boards in that game, while senior and leading scorer Quinn Calabrese has averaged 17 points per game during the tournament. Senior Mike Caputo also had a pair of big games to open the tournament, scoring 19 points in the opener vs. Woodbridge and 15 points in a quarterfinal win over Hamilton West.

Neptune junior Sam Fagan. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Neptune junior Sam Fagan. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Neptune has had a number of heroes during its run to the championship game. Sophomore Malik Fields led the team with 13 points in the opening-round win over Northern Burlington, junior Sam Fagan erupted for 40 in a double-overtime win over Somerville and senior Saadiq Armstead scored 15 to lead the way on Friday against Burlington Township, with junior Andre Harris tipping in the game-winner.

Wall enters Friday 13-0 on its home floor after pulling away to beat No. 5 Allentown and although Neptune came close in the last meeting at Monday’s site, Wall, as it always seems to do, found a way. As dangerous as Neptune is right now, it’s a little difficult to envision any other outcome.

The Pick: Wall, 55-49


Central Jersey Group IV Championship

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

No. 4 South Brunswick (24-5) at No. 3 Marlboro (23-6), 5:30 p.m.

The Marlboro boys basketball team has never played in an NJSIAA sectional final game and on Tuesday, the Mustangs’ first title-game appearance will be in their home gym. That is because on top of Marlboro going on the road to beat No. 2 New Brunswick in Saturday’s Central Group IV semifinal, South Brunswick also scored an impressive road win by taking down top-seeded Middletown South with a fourth-quarter surge.

While it remains to be seen how Marlboro matches up with South Brunswick, Middletown South’s demise is undoubtedly a break for Marlboro. The Mustangs went 0-3 against the Eagles during the season and in the most recent meeting, Middletown South hung 100 points up on Marlboro in a 16-point victory that claimed the outright Class A North championship.

Marlboro senior Alex Ratner. (Photo by Ray Richardson)
Marlboro senior Alex Ratner. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

This Central Jersey Group IV final will pit two up-tempo teams against one another, with Marlboro averaging 78.6 points per game through 29 games and South Brunswick at 75.1 through the same amount. As good as South Brunswick has been racking up points, the Vikings have scored fewer than 60 points in a game four times while Marlboro has not scored fewer than 64 in any game and has failed to reach 70 points just four times.

Senior Alex Ratner leads Marlboro’s balanced, high-powered scoring attack with a Shore-Conference-best 23.1 points per game – a standout senior campaign for the program’s all-time leading scorer. Ratner is the only senior who sees regular time, with junior Aleksy Friedman and sophomores Jack Seidler, Jon Spatola and Jay Ratner rounding out the starting five. Marlboro has had four players score in double-figures in each game of the tournament, with Ratner, Spatola and Seidler each hitting double-figure scoring in each game.

South Brunswick counters with a team that put up better than 80 points in each of the first two rounds, then ran away from Middletown South in the fourth quarter on Saturday night after entering the final eight minutes tied, 47-47. After scoring 20 points in that win, Devin Strickland is averaging 19.7 points for the tournament – just below his 19.96 average for the season – and classmate Justin Carbone is at 18.7 for the tournament and 19.5 for the season.

On top of shooting for a sectional championship, the Vikings are looking to complete a remarkable two-year turnaround -  one that saw them go from 1-18 in 2017-18 to 12-13 last year to 24 wins and a shot at a CJ IV title this season.

Based on South Brunswick’s performance on Saturday, the Vikings appear to be the tentative favorite, but the Mustangs are never to be counted out. The fast pace almost always favors Marlboro and if the Mustangs can work the glass like Middletown South did in the loss, as well as get stops when they are must-have. Either Marlboro gets its first or South Brunswick caps an unbelievable two-year turnaround – there should be no shortage of drama nor points in this one.

The Pick: Marlboro, 79-77


Central Jersey Group II Championship

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

No. 2 Holmdel (23-4) at No. 1 Manasquan (30-1), 5:30 p.m.

The old adage in sports is that it is hard to beat a team three times, but once a team has beaten an opponent three times, there might be a trend emerging. Manasquan and Holmdel have locked up three times this season and the last two have been two of the toughest battles within the Shore Conference this season. With Toms River North and Middletown South bowing out of the state tournament early, it’s fair to say these are the Shore Conference’s two best teams and the last two meetings – in which Manasquan has won by a combined 10 points – have verified that.

Holmdel and its mostly-senior group has one more chance to beat Manasquan when the two Class A Central rivals clash on Tuesday in the Central Jersey Group II final and the Hornets will have to do it in the gym where Manasquan earned the one lopsided win of this year’s series. Back on Jan. 7, the Warriors steamrolled Holmdel, 67-40, in a game that seemed to indicate that no team in the division would provide much resistance in keeping Manasquan from winning both the Class A Central title and the Shore Conference championship.

Manasquan sophomore Ben Roy followed by Holmdel junior Alex Baker. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Manasquan sophomore Ben Roy followed by Holmdel junior Alex Baker. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

While that is true in the big picture, Holmdel managed to make Manasquan work hard for the next two. The Warriors overcame a three-point halftime deficit to win, 46-40, at Holmdel in late January and wiped out a 10-point deficit with 9:45 to go in a 44-40 win over the Hornets in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals. In both games, senior Alex Galvan was returning from an extended absence due to two separate injuries – first a sprained ankle and then a bruised shin – and while Manasquan looked somewhat out of sorts adjusting to his return, Galvan was a major difference-maker in both Warriors wins.

In this most recent game, Holmdel locked up Manasquan’s guards for three quarters before sophomore Ben Roy took over late and junior Kieran Flanagan made just enough plays to help their team cross the finish line. Holmdel senior Eric Hinds, in particular, has emerged as the team’s defensive stopper and will try one more time to lead the effort against Roy and Flanagan while junior Alex Baker, senior Pete Cannizzo, senior John Curreri and junior Ryan Bradley will form the rotation of forward that tries to slow Galvan down while also keeping 6-8 senior center Tim McEneny and 6-5 junior Connor Walsh in check.

Holmdel had an advantage in perimeter shooting in the last meeting, holding Manasquan without a three-point shot. Juniors Jack Collins and Casey Mulligan have been the x-factors for Manasquan in that regard, with Collins jumpstarting the SCT championship win over Toms River North with a pair of first-quarter threes and Mulligan knocking down three first-half threes in Thursday’s win over Rumson-Fair Haven. On the other side, seniors Jack Giamanco, Doug Chan and Derek Chan are the shooters Manasquan will have to keep better tabs on this time around, which the Warriors did more effectively in the fourth quarter of the last meeting.

For the fourth time to be a charm for Holmdel, the Hornets will have to coax Manasquan into another poor shooting night, keep up their defensive intensity for four quarters, and get big offensive performances from Giamanco, Doug Chan and Alex Baker – and do all of that in Manasquan’s home bandbox. This Holmdel group has been on the wrong end of six games vs. the Warriors over the last two seasons – including last year’s CJ II quarterfinals – and a seventh loss would be a cruel way to end what has been a remarkable season for the Hornets. Unfortunately for them, this appears to be a bad year to have a good year if you are a Class A Central team from somewhere other than Manasquan.

The Pick: Manasquan, 59-48


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