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NJSIAA Group II Semifinal

Thursday, March 12, 2020

At RWJ Barnabas Health Arena, Toms River, 6:30 p.m.

Manasquan (31-1) vs. Camden (29-1)

There is a reason the term “one game at a time” has become a tired cliché in sports and that reason is because it tends to work for the teams at the top of their field. Manasquan head coach Andrew Bilodeau and his players have alluded to the principle over the course of the year, stressing that every game – from the regular-season road game vs. the last-place team in Class A Central to an NJSIAA sectional championship game on their home floor – means something.

Although he prefers his players not look too far ahead, there is one name Bilodeau has been fine hearing his team utter and it is the name of the team the Warriors will take on Thursday night in Toms River with a trip to the Group II final – and so much more – on the line.

“We’re not afraid of it,” Bilodeau said of his players talking about Camden over the course of the year. “You have expectations for yourselves and as a team. We have talked about it before and we are kind of excited that it came to fruition. It’s a good opportunity for us.”

Manasquan senior Alex Galvan. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

From the early part of the season, it became clear that Manasquan and Camden were the class of Group II and a showdown between the two in the Group II semifinal was almost inevitable. Both teams made that clear in their respective sectional tournaments – each winning their four games by double-figure margins, with Camden winning every game by at least 28 and scoring 90-plus points three times.

"We knew based on our paths that we would have a chance to meet them but we didn't really want to look to far ahead," senior guard Jack Flanagan said. "We have been looking at a little bit of film but not totally because it wasn't our next game. Now, it's our next game, so we're going to get on the film tonight and tomorrow after school."

With the sectional titles in the bag, the two teams will try to hunt down an elusive group championship, which Manasquan has never won and Camden has not won since 2000 – the same year the Panthers became the last public school program to win the Tournament of Champions. The Panthers enter Thursday on a 25-game winning streak, while Manasquan puts its 21-game streak on the line.

While Manasquan has past just about every test put in front of it during a 31-1 campaign – even a 45-43 loss to Roselle Catholic had a positive tenor about it considering the absence of 6-foot-7 forward Alex Galvan – Camden represents the toughest challenge the Warriors have faced this season. The Panthers boast multiple high-major players, led by 6-10 senior and Kentucky commit Lance Ware.

On top of Ware, Camden boasts emerging 6-7 junior Ta’Quan Woodley as well as freshman phenom D.J. Wagner – the son of former Camden star, NBA guard and the state’s all-time leading scorer Dajuan Wagner.

Camden also brings a certain amount of star power to its sideline in former NBA guard Rick Brunson, the father of recent Villanova All-American guard Jalen Brunson.

With so much going for Camden, Manasquan will once again embrace the underdog role – one they have really only gotten to play once this season. The Warriors did an admirable job of it as well, nearly taking out Roselle Catholic with Galvan watching from the sideline due to a sprained ankle. In a game against fellow state top-10 team the following weekend, Manasquan hammered St. Peter’s Prep with Galvan out.

The matchups to watch will be Manasquan’s front court of Galvan and 6-8 Tim McEneny against Woodley and Ware, while sophomore Ben Roy goes head-to-head with Wagner in a matchup of two of the better underclass guards in N.J.

Thursday’s game will also mark the second straight year Manasquan squares off with a No. 1 team in the state. The Panthers lost to Ranney in last year’s Shore Conference Tournament final and trailed by only four points early in the fourth quarter before losing, 70-60. For the five returning players who saw time in that game, Thursday’s game will provide a similar experience.

"Obviously, we don't see ourselves as the underdog, but many people see us as the underdog," Galvan said. "That should relieve the pressure and allow us to go out and just compete against the number one team in the state."

Manasquan will be the underdog thanks to Camden’s big-name talent and dominance over the course of the season, but the Warriors don’t shy away from games like this. Take this quote from Bilodeau after losing to Roselle Catholic in early January.

“I'm not a big rankings guy,” Bilodeau said. “I don't pay much attention to the AAU circuit, I don't know where guys are going (to college), but I know they (Roselle Catholic) have very good players. But so do we. We have some guys on our team who aren't there notoriety-wise yet, but we've got a bunch of scholarship players on this team and I hope people take notice of that."

The Warriors will be a confident team and while the safe bet is Camden, Manasquan has the kind of team that could surprise a lot of people around the state by more than just competing with Camden. It’s tough to take the leap, but Manasquan should certainly do its part on helping this game live up to the hype.

The Pick: Camden, 74-67