Photo Gallery by Larry Murphy

ABERDEEN TWP. – The Manalapan boys basketball team won all of five games during the 2013-14 season, which saw the Braves attempt to implement five new starters into their starting lineup and replace a first-team All-Shore guard in Anthony Firkser.

Before the calendar turns to January, the Braves already have as many wins as they had all of last season. In Monday's Husky Holiday Classic final against Old Bridge at Matawan High School, they joined Firkser and company as champions.

Manalapan edged Old Bridge 49-46 for its fifth straight win to open the season, capturing the Husky championship for the second time in three seasons.

Manalapan won its second Husky Classic title in three years by beating Old Bridge on Monday, 49-46. (Photo by Larry Murphy)

“Coming off of last year, we wanted to show people that we’re a good team and that we can compete against top competition,” senior forward and tournament Most Valuable Player Kyle Mullen said. “We’ve already won as many games as we did last year, and it’s been a combination of hard work and believing in one another.”

Mullen scored 13 of his 16 points in the first half, while senior Zach Misischia also poured in 16 points, with 14 of those coming after halftime.

“Guys have really embraced their roles, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, and we’ve got the athletes to really affect teams when we know we’re supposed to be on defense,” Manalapan coach Rick Garretson said. “We also have a bunch of guys still coming out of football season. You look at Kyle, he’s still kind of worn down from football and he’s still giving us unbelievable effort out there, and I think it’s just going to continue to get better.”

The two finalists remained within no more than seven points of one another throughout the game and Manalapan never trailed by more than three to the Knights. After falling behind 24-21 early in the third quarter, the Braves went on an 8-0 run to take the lead for good.

Old Bridge cut its deficit to two points twice in the late stages of the fourth quarter but could not pull even either time. Junior Stephen Strom hit a three from the corner to cut the Manalapan lead to 45-43 with a little more than two minutes left, but Misischia responded with a putback on the other end to push the lead back to four.

Luiz Cruz finished a lay-up with just over a minute to play to again cut the Manalapan lead to two and after forcing a turnover, Old Bridge earned a chance to tie the game when junior Connor Romano drew a two-shot foul with 39.9 seconds left. Romano – who scored a team-high 16 points to match Mullen and Misischia – missed both free throws to keep Manalapan on top.

Misischia missed the front end of a one-and-one on the ensuing possession, giving Old Bridge yet another chance to tie the game or take the lead. Strom got another open look from the corner, but his potential game-winning three-point attempt rimmed out and was corralled by junior Anthony Schimbeno with 3.5 seconds left. Schimbeno made the first of two free throws and Mullen grabbed the offensive rebound on the missed attempt to kill the remaining seconds.

“We started playing close games by the end of last year and even though we didn’t win most of them, it’s given us experience to pull together when these games have been close,” Mullen said.

Manalapan was successful in its first four wins of the season in slowing the game down and limiting opponents to paltry point totals. The Braves held three of their first four opponents under 40 points, including Husky Classic host Matawan, which entered the season as the No. 2 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10. Carteret was the only team in the first four games to top 40 against the Braves, and the Ramblers only scored 42.

“When you’re facing a high-powered offense, you’ve got to do what you can to slow them down, even if it’s not pretty,” Misischia said. “We definitely pride ourselves on being a defensive team and we know if we’re going to win games, it starts with our defense.”

Old Bridge successfully sped up the tempo in the second half with its full-court pressure, but Manalapan made up for a handful of turnovers by turning its press-break into scoring enough times to make the Knights pay.

Manalapan’s fast start to the season adds intrigue to a team that is expecting to add 6-foot-3 junior guard NyRhique Smith to the lineup in late January once he has sat the requisite 30 days and becomes eligible. Smith – who began his high school career at Monmouth Regional two seasons ago before transferring to Frederick Douglass in Maryland – said he already has offers from Virginia Commonwealth University, St. Peter’s University and the University of Tulsa and is drawing interest from a number of Atlantic Coast Conference schools, including Wake Forest, Virginia and the University of North Carolina.

“It’s almost going to be like having two different teams in one,” Garretson said. “We’re seeing one of those teams right now, and adding NyRhique with his individual creativity will give us a different look. As a coach, it’s hard to get a team ready to play multiple styles, so we’re going to have a chance to cause some problems when we get him on the court.”