HAZLET - While some teams wait for the shooting touch to come around in order to put the opposition away, the Manasquan boys basketball team plays to hit that stretch of game in which its defense can shut an opponent down and bring home a win.

After surrendering 32 points in the first half, the Warriors - the No. 3 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - held Raritan to four points in the third quarter on Thursday en route to a 59-51 win over the Rockets that clinched the outright Shore Conference Class A Central championship for Manasquan.

"Even in years when we are good and they are young, they always seem to give us a battle here," Manasquan coach Andrew Bilodeau said of Raritan. "They are always physical, and we are physical, so I think it helps that their kids don't back down."

Manasquan senior Jack Sheehan keeps the ball away from Raritan's John Guccione. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Manasquan senior Jack Sheehan keeps the ball away from Raritan's John Guccione. (Photo by Matt Manley)

The Warriors closed the third quarter on a 9-0 run to turn a 36-36 deadlock into a 45-36 lead heading to the final eight minutes. Senior Jack Sheehan and junior brother Tom Sheehan combined for all nine of those points, with Tom Sheehan scoring six and older brother Jack knocking down a three-pointer.

"Tonight, we didn't defend in the first half like we should have, for some reason, and to their credit, they hit shots, particularly threes," Bilodeau said. "In the second half, I think we picked it up a little."

Both Sheehan brothers scored 15 points, with Tom pulling down 15 rebounds and Jack adding five rebounds and seven assists. Junior Devin Jensen, meanwhile, led Manasquan with 18 points, including 15 in the first half to help his team keep pace with the Rockets and get to the half tied at 32. Jensen finished the game 5-for-10 from behind the three-point line.

Raritan hung around with Manasquan thanks to a hot-shooting first half and by hounding Manasquan leading scorer Ryan Jensen into a 2-for-14 shooting game that ended with the recently-minted 1,000-point scorer posting a mere five points. Jensen did manage to grab 10 rebounds as he closes in on 1,000 boards for his career.

The Rockets not only stayed close to Manasquan into the early stages of the fourth quarter; they jumped out to a comfortable lead on the division champions. Back-to-back baskets by senior Joe Strand late in the first quarter gave Raritan an 18-10 lead, one it would take into the second quarter.

After Manasquan Shane Flanagan hit a three-pointer to start the second quarter, Raritan answered with a three by senior John Guccione to push the lead back to eight. That, however, was as large as the Raritan lead would get as Manasquan responded with a 12-0 run to go up 25-21, sparked by a pair of three-pointers by Devin Jensen and a pair of lay-ins by Tom Sheehan.

Raritan fought back to pull even at 32 by the half and even took a 34-33 lead early in the second quarter, but senior Eddie Tynion's free throws to tie the game at 36 early in the third was the last time Raritan would be even with Manasquan.

Baskets by Mason Sheehan and Tynion did pull Raritan to within 45-40 early in the fourth, but the Warriors scored seven straight points - four on inside scores by Jack Sheehan and three more on a triple by Devin Jensen - to push the lead to 12.

Tynion led Raritan with 15 points, including 11 during the first half, while Strand added 12. The Rockets shot 6-for-15 from behind the three-point line in the first half and all four of their second-quarter field goals were threes.

With Thursday's win, Manasquan now takes aim at a high seed in the Shore Conference Tournament, which will be seeded on Sunday and begins on Wednesday. The Warriors play St. Rose on Saturday before the cutoff and a win would give them a 19-2 record with losses only to Rumson-Fair Haven on the road and the Patrick School at home.

"I think the top couple seeds are probably a forgone conclusion with Mater Dei and (Christian Brothers Academy)," Bilodeau said. "And then from there, it's the opinion of those (seeding committee members) in the room. I think all of those guys take their job seriously and they're going to look at who beat who.

"I think there are probably 10 teams that you could just scramble up and put in a bunch of different sequences, so it's going to be interesting to see how it shakes out."

Thursday's game is a preview of the first round of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II Playoffs, which will open on Feb. 29 with No. 2 seed Manasquan hosting No. 15 Raritan - the third meeting between the two A Central foes, unless they somehow meet for a third time in the Shore Conference Tournament, in which case the NJSIAA meeting would be the fourth.

Manasquan is aiming to repeat as sectional champions after advancing to the Group II semifinals against Camden, which ended the Warriors' season one game short of the Group II final.

"We can play fast. We can play in the half court. We have four or five guys who can score," Bilodeau said of his roster. "I think we're always pretty good defensively, so I think when you compete, you're good defensively and you have some shooting, you have a chance, at least, to compete at the state level."

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