MANALAPAN -- On a team with a fair amount of senior influence, Anthony Leger was the leading scorer and all-division selection as a junior in 2022-23, but his performance was a season highlight for a Manalapan team that finished with a losing record and was bounced from both the Shore Conference Tournament and NJSIAA Playoffs in the first round.

The individual accomplishments were nice, but Leger wanted his senior year to be a much better one for his team. As he started to realize when his team had on hand, he began his transformation from shoot-first guard to true point guard.

That transformation is in its final stage and the result is a Manalapan team with scorers all over the floor and the program's deepest postseason run in a quarter-century.

Leger handed out seven assists to go with 13 points Monday at Manalapan High School while classmate Phil Pearlman and junior Aiden Sosinov combined for 36 points and 24 rebounds to spark Manalapan -- the No. 3 seed in the Central Jersey Group IV Tournament -- to a 58-42 win over No. 11 Jackson Memorial that puts the Braves in the sectional quarterfinals for the first time since 1999.

Manalapan senior Anthony Leger drives on Middletown South sophomore Beckett Oliver. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Manalapan senior Anthony Leger drives on Middletown South sophomore Beckett Oliver during Manalapan's first-round win on Wednesday, Feb. 21. (Photo: Tom Smith |

Pearlman led Manalapan with 19 points and 12 rebounds, while Sosinov went for 17 and 12 to help the Braves pull away in the fourth quarter.

The trio of Pearlman, Sosinov and Leger have been Manalapan's version of a big three all season, but particularly in the Braves' four tournament games between the Shore Conference and NJSIAA Tournaments. In those four games, Pearlman is averaging 18 points and 11.5 rebounds, Sosinov 20.25 points and 13.75 rebounds, and Leger 16.5 points and 7.5 assists. Manalapan is 3-1 in that collection of games, with its only losses coming in overtime at Holmdel -- the No. 3 team in the Shore Sports Network Shore 16 rankings -- in the SCT round of 16.

"Last year, we didn't have as many weapons and sometimes it just felt like, 'Anthony Leger, go do something,'" Leger said. "This year, we have a lot more weapons. Personally, my role on this team is leader, to facilitate, make other guys around me better and I'll still get mine. My points took a hit this year, but it's alright -- it's a team sport and we're a better team this year."

Jackson Memorial invaded Manalapan Monday after a thrilling upset of sixth-seeded Howell Wednesday in the first round of the tournament, which ended with junior Brady Adams hitting a game-winning three-pointer with two seconds left. The Jaguars stayed within striking distance through three quarters, trailing Manalapan, 37-30, heading into the fourth quarter after turning the game into a defensive struggle in the third after Manalapan played to its preferred pace in taking a 31-24 halftime lead.

In the fourth, however, Manalapan kept its defensive intensity turned up and also found ways to score in order to pull away. Sosinov shot 8-for-10 from the free-throw line in the fourth, Pearlman scored five points, senior Colin O'Brien converted a three-point play that effectively sealed the game with under two minutes to go and Leger punctuated the win with a dunk to give Manalapan its largest lead at 58-40.

"It's a do-or-die game and I didn't want to die," Sosinov said. "I'm not trying to go home yet."

Manalapan started the fourth with a 9-3 burst that pushed its lead to 46-33. Sosinov hit two free throws, both Leger and O'Brien found Pearlman for a score inside the paint and Leger hit a free throw and drove to the rim for a basket during the run.

The only other point during the game in which Manalapan gained separation from Jackson Memorial was during the second quarter. Jaguars senior Devin Jones scored nine of his team-high 15 points in the first quarter to keep Jackson Memorial within 18-15 at the end of the first quarter and a three from sophomore Jimmy Pappalardo tied the game at 18 early in the second.

The Braves responded with six straight points as part of a 9-2 run that gave them a lead that would not dip below five the rest of the way. Leger, Sosinov and Pearlman each scored during the run of six straight points and a three-pointer by Leger put Manalapan ahead, 27-20.

Jackson Memorial has had success throughout the season limiting teams to scoring outputs below their season averages, and has held Manalapan Manalapan to an average of 60 points in two losses to the Braves -- the other a 62-54 defeat in January. Freshman Joe Farino burned Jackson Memorial for 16 points off the bench in that win and on Monday, the Jaguars kept Farino off the board and fellow three-point marksmen O'Brien (three points) and senior Tristan Ulrich (six points) in check.

The Jaguars could not, however, solve the trio of Pearlman, Sosinov and Leger. While Leger broke down Jackson Memorial's defense off the dribble and on pick-and-rolls, Sosinov and Pearlman again owned the glass, which they have done in each of Manalapan's tournament games.

"Our size with me and Phil has been a huge advantage," Sosinov said. "Cleaning up missed layups, missed shots, getting us easy points, grabbing big defensive rebounds when we need them -- it's been a big weapon for us all season."

"Coach (Matt Conklin) really emphasizes rebounding and he is always praising us, hyping us up to go after it on the glass," Pearlman said. "Without rebounding, you can't do much as a team. We have two bigs, we're both up around 10 rebounds a game, and (Sosinov) is over 10. It's been huge for getting us second-chance points and extra possessions."

Manalapan's defense and rebounding have not been dominant throughout the season, but the Braves have been solid in both areas and far improved from a season ago, when they finished 12-13 and ended the season with a 92-67 loss to Middletown South in the first round of the Central Group IV playoffs.

"We have grown a lot (defensively)," Leger said. "We have a lot of length this year and we use it. We take pride in our 2-3 zone, how we rotate and cover the middle."

Leger has been the constant between this year and last. He earned Class A North All-Division honors from the Shore Conference coaches by averaging 14.5 points and 3.3 assists and his stats this season are not much different: 12.5 points and 4.4 assists.

Manalapan senior Phil Pearlman shoots over Middletown South senior Will Nugent. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Manalapan senior Phil Pearlman shoots over Middletown South senior Will Nugent. (Photo: Tom Smith |

The difference for Leger and Manalapan is he has two teammates who are also averaging double-figures in scoring and one in Sosinov who not only leads the team, but is averaging a double-double at 15.9 points and 11.6 rebounds. Factor in shooters like Ulrich, Farino and O'Brien and Leger's 12.5 points this year have carried Manalapan farther than his 14.5 a year ago.

"It's great having him," Sosinov said of Leger. "He's a great leader and a great leader, in general. He doesn't care about points; he wants to win. He wants to get all of us involved and just make the right play."

Sosinov's emergence, in particular, has been a game-changer for Manalapan. From a sub-varsity season as a sophomore to a breakout junior season in which he has been one of the Shore's most productive players, Sosinov has pushed the Braves over the top while Leger and Pearlman have further cemented their roles.

"I knew we had something here in the preseason, for sure," Leger said. "Tristan Ulrich is shooting 40 percent from three -- absolute stud. Aiden is averaging a double-double with 16 points. Phil is doing almost the same thing. Joey Farino is coming off the bench and scoring as a freshman. Colin O'Brien has been really good for us and (junior) Jarrett Barber has given us good minutes off the bench, so it's a really well-rounded team. Those guys do all the little things you need to do and those are the plays that make a difference.

Manalapan junior Aiden Sosinov. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Manalapan junior Aiden Sosinov. (Photo: Tom Smith |

"The big thing is everyone has bought into their roles. I think that's the biggest difference from last year. There are no egos here, we just want to win."

Manalapan is now in the sectional semifinals for the first time in 25 years and will make the short trip to Monroe Wednesday to play the second-seeded Falcons. While Manalapan has handled its two opponents by double-figure margins, Monroe has barely skated by No. 15 Freehold Township (51-49) and No. 7 North Brunswick (48-45), with the latter ending on a three-pointer just before the final buzzer by Brody Piscitelli.

Manalapan's run comes not only after losing to Holmdel in the SCT quarterfinals, but also losing a game to Marlboro that cost the Braves an outright Class A North public division championship. They also dropped games to Shore Regional and Southern to take a three-game losing streak into the state tournament.

"We had a rough week last week," Pearlman said. "We went back to practice, thanks to coach (Conklin), we put in the work, had a good week of practice and we have come out ready.

"It sucks to lose those games, but we had to realize we have been a good team all year and those losses didn't hurt us. Our goals were still in front of us and we just had to learn from it and get better and we definitely have."

Monroe is in its first sectional semifinal since 2019, when the Falcons lost to eventual CJ IV champion Freehold Township. They have not been to a sectional final since 2006, while Manalapan is looking to win its first sectional championship since 1988.

"Manalapan has never been a powerhouse basketball team," Pearlman said. "We knew at the beginning of the year that we had the pieces."

"It's crazy," Leger said. "We're making history with this team. It's been a long, hard journey."

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