TOMS RIVER - Red Bank Catholic senior M.J. Wright described the last 1.1 seconds of Sunday night's WOBM Christmas Classic championship game as though time slowed down.

Most of Marlboro players thought it actually did.

With the objective of preventing Marlboro - the No. 5 seed in the tournament - from going the length of the floor for the winning score, Wright shadowed his man in the back-court to deny the inbounds pass. The next thing he knew the ball bounced in front of him and the race was on to beat the clock.

The 5-foot-10 senior did just that, flipping up a floater that bounced on the rim and dropped through for the winning basket as the clock expired on the sixth-seeded Caseys' 53-51 win over Marlboro to capture the program's first ever WOBM Christmas Classic championship.

"Playing football, (RBC) coach (Frank) Edgerly always says that in these big moments and big games, you want to make the game slow down," said Wright, an All-Shore wide receiver for the Caseys in the fall. "I saw it get deflected and when it bounced, it was almost like the ball was sitting in mid-air. I knew there was only a second left so I tried to get it and get it up as quickly as I could and it went in."

Photo by Paula Lopez
Photo by Paula Lopez

"That's the kind of play where if you watch basketball long enough, you will probably see it happen," Red Bank Catholic coach Tyler Schmelz said. "It's definitely not something you expect to see. We were just trying to get the game to overtime. You never expect anything like that is going to happen but two great athletes stepped up and made something happen."

Junior 6-foot-6 forward Kevin Bauman defended the inbounds pass underneath Marlboro's basket with 1.1 seconds left and deflected an attempted long heave by Marlboro junior guard Anthony Brienza. The ball took one bounce and, in one motion, Wright caught it and shoveled it up in the air before the last fraction of the 1.1 seconds ran off the clock.

"I just wanted to be a distraction and try to get in the way," Bauman said. "I got my whole hand on (the ball) it, I turned around and saw M.J. coming to get it. He is the quickest guy on the floor and he got there and got it up really quick. It was crazy to watch - unbelievable play."

Wright is one of two new starters for RBC and his job of replacing graduated point guard Matt Ansell was arguably the most important role of any Caseys player heading into the season. Wright again ran the offense effectively once again Sunday, finished with seven points and was named to the WOBM All-Tournament Second Team.

"Matt Ansell was a really good player for us and replacing him was definitely one of the challenges we had to deal with," Schmelz said. "M.J. is a different player. He is so fast - you see it the way he gets us up and down the floor. He is great at defending the ball. He has really stepped up running the offense and he was huge for us in this tournament."

Wright's improbable shot helped Red Bank Catholic avoid a fourth-quarter collapse against a Marlboro team that has made a name for itself as a strong second-half squad during the seven-year tenure of head coach Mike Nausedas. Red Bank Catholic led, 42-33, heading into the final quarter and went up 51-44 on a three-pointer by junior Charlie Gordinier with under five minutes to go.

Marlboro answered with a 7-0 run, capped by a game-tying layup by junior Alex Ratner with 1:23 remaining. After missing a three-pointer from the wing, Ratner picked off a pass near the three-point line in the back court and took it in for the tying score.

"Ratner is a great player," Schmelz said. "Once they get going, they are tough to stop."

RBC bled the clock to 10 seconds before senior Matt Conley missed a 17-footer and Gordinier followed with a missed fadeaway in the paint. Marlboro coraled the rebound and called timeout with 1.1 seconds left to attempt to set up a potential winning shot.

Bauman returned to the floor tasked with disrupting the inbounder and the Notre Dame football commit got his left hand on the pass despite mistiming his jump.

"We were really worried about them getting behind us but we also didn't want to give them an open shot from half court, because you see those go in sometimes too," Schmelz said. "Bauman has the kind of length that can disrupt the inbounds passer and we just wanted to challenge everything. If we could do that, we go to overtime. Of course, that's not what happened, but it was a good outcome."

Bauman finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds, senior Steve Lubischer scored a team-high 13 points to go with eight rebounds and Gordinier poured in 11 points before being named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. The 6-6 junior swingman averaged 16.75 points in RBC's four wins.

RBC stormed out to a 19-6 lead and led, 21-11, at the end of the first quarter. Marlboro answered with a 13-2 run to take its first lead of the game. Ratner scored 12 of his 14 points for the game in that second quarter.

Senior Dylan Kaufman dominated the second half, scoring 15 of his game-high 24 points and all but six of his team's 21 second-half points. The Mustangs scored only three points in the third quarter but Kaufman led the charge in the fourth with 13 points. The 6-6 senior also grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds.

"Kaufman was going up against Bauman and Gordinier and he was dominating the game in the fourth quarter," Schmelz said. "Those are some big-time athletes and he was scoring at will down there. We've heard a lot about Marlboro and we haven't seen them up close in a game like this until now. I'm a believer. They are tough."

Gordinier, Lubischer, Bauman and Wright were all key cogs on Red Bank Catholic's undefeated, NJSIAA Non-Public Group 3 championship football team and three of them - Lubischer (Boston College), Bauman (Notre Dame) and Wright (Fordham) are already committed to play in college. On Sunday, the quartet combined for 41 of RBC's 53 points.

"There is definitely that connection and that competitiveness that we have from football," Wright said. "I know most people just think we are a football team playing basketball but we compete really hard in practice. We want to win and even though football is the first sport for a lot of us, we have some year-round basketball guys and athletes and we play off of one another."

Despite their futures on the gridiron, the core of RBC football-first players are not conceding anything on the basketball court. Last year, the Caseys upset Christian Brothers Academy in the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public A quarterfinals and finished with 18 wins.

"We're here to complete; we're not just here to mess around," Bauman said. "We're here to have fun, but we're here to compete and win. We have a group of the most competitive guys around and we want to win at everything. Football was great, now we want to win here and that's what our focus as been since football season ended."

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