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TOMS RIVER - In most years, it takes until the end of February to find out whether or not a team is the best in the Shore Conference. After its run through a loaded field to win the WOBM Christmas Classic, the Manasquan boys basketball team proved before the New Year that it is the best the Shore has to offer in 2020.

Now the Warriors just have to figure out how to keep it that way.

Monday night's anticipated WOBM Christmas Classic final between Manasquan and Toms River North was tight heading into the fourth quarter but the top-seeded Warriors quickly pushed the lead into double-figures and kept their foot on the accelerator in a 78-63 win over the second-seeded Mariners.

"Our guys know how difficult our conference is and we have four more showcase games coming up," Manasquan coach Andrew Bilodeau said. "They know the difficulty of the competition and they are a pretty experienced group. I don't think they take anybody lightly and I don't think they fear anyone."

Sophomore Ben Roy earned tournament MVP honors after capping his four-game run with 26 points and four assists on Monday night - giving him 82 points in four games (20.5 per game) with 53 in the last two rounds of the tournament.

Photo by Matt Manley
Photo by Matt Manley

"Ben did what we see him do every day," Bilodeau said. "I think our three guards are as good a trio as there is period and he's obviously a big part of it."

Senior Alex Galvan also scored 26 points to go with his 12 rebounds and three assists while earning first-team all-tournament honors. Classmate Kieran Flanagan posted 14 points, six rebounds and eight assists Monday night and earned both second-team all-tournament recognition, as well as the Chuck Kearney Memorial Award.

"I have been really impressed with the way our big guys have played," Bilodeau said. "And I know Kieran Flanagan got the second-team all-tournament and the Chuck Kearney Award, but I thought his defense over the course of the first six games - he looks like the best defensive player we have ever had, certainly that I have coached."

Both Roy and Galvan did most of their scoring damage in the second half, with Galvan scoring 16 points in the second half and Roy going for 14 after the break.

"They were playing zone so we just tried to find the soft spots and attack the rim with Ben and our guards," Galvan said. "Our bigs started to collapse inside to get some easy baskets of that."

Monday's win is Manasquan's sixth straight to open the season and among those victories are wins against the No. 3 team in the Shore Sports Network Preseason Top 10 (Middletown South), No. 4 in the preseason Top 10 (Toms River North) and the defending NJSIAA Group IV champion (Newark East Side).

With No. 2 Ranney - the defending Shore Conference Tournament champion and Tournament of Champions winner - dropping to 1-3 with losses to Burlington Township and Red Bank about 30 miles north at the Buc Holiday Classic in Red Bank and No. 5 Christian Brothers Academy losing four straight games by double-digits to open the season, Manasquan has been the class of the conference in the early going and the field has a lot of catching up to do over the next two months.

For three quarters on Monday, Toms River North was up to the task of challenging Manasquan for the mantle of No. 1. Senior Jakari Spence scored a game-high 30 points to go with five assists and canned a three-pointer in the final minute of the third quarter that pulled Toms River North within 51-47 heading into the fourth quarter.

For the second straight game, however, Manasquan used an early-fourth-quarter run to put distance between itself and its opponent. After an 8-0 run in the span of a minute blew open Saturday's win over Middletown South, it was a 13-4 run to open the fourth that turned a two-possession game into a 64-51 Manasquan lead that would not get closer than nine and later balloon to 18.

"Our key is we don't stop playing," Roy said. "We don't look to run the clock out - we keep going like we were going at the start of the game. With the way we put points on the board and we're so aggressive on defense, we are tough team for all four quarters."

Toms River North jumped out to a 6-0 lead in the game behind some hot shooting from Spence and classmate Najae Hallenbeck. The 6-foot-6, 285-pound Hallenbeck buried his first two three-point attempts and scored eight points in the first three minutes to jump-start a 20-point, 11-rebound performance.

"We were not really sharp for three quarters and mostly because Toms River North presents some pretty unique challenges," Bilodeau said. "You need a guy-and-a-half on Spence and a guy-and-a-half on Hallenbeck. That only leaves you two guys to cover three and that's a problem."

While Hallenbeck got his 20-point double-double, Manasquan was effective in making him work hard for his opportunities around the basket thanks to the defensive effort of 6-8 senior Tim McEneny and 6-5 senior Jack Collins. The Warriors also used junior guard Casey Mulligan to dig down into the post.

"I didn't have to guard him but I couldn't imagine having to guard him straight-up for a whole game," Galvan said. "A 6-6 dude shooting threes and moving guys around like he does, that's tough to deal with. He is a big guy and you don't really see too many guys like him. Plus Jakari is a stud as well so we had to focus our game plan around those two guys."

"I thought McEneny did a great job keeping his his percentages a little lower than it was in other games," Bilodeau said. "We used Casey Mulligan a lot to dig in on him and I thought that threw off the rhythm a little bit - not allowing him to put it on the floor and back in.

McEneny - a Cornell baseball commit - complemented his defensive effort with eight points and seven rebounds in his first start of the season. McEneny recently finished rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery on his left pitching elbow and missed the first three games of the season.

Manasquan also bottled up Toms River North senior Colin Baker, who scored just two points to go with five assists after career-best 26 points and 10 assists in the semifinal win over Marlboro on Saturday. Senior Mike Vansprang was the Mariners' third scoring source on Monday with eight points.

While Manasquan's Shore supremacy appears unchallenged for the time being, the Warriors will face plenty of quality competition over the next two weeks, with showcase games on tap against West Side Newark and Roselle Catholic on each of the next two Saturdays.

"We are just going to keep being hungry," Roy said. "We don't want to treat anyone lightly. Everyone is going to be gunning for us, but we are ready for the challenge and we are always going to play hard. You can count on that."


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