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MARLBORO - Every team encounters its health woes during the course of a high school basketball season, but few coaches in the area are as well-versed in dealing with a short bench due to illness and injury as Marlboro coach Mike Nausedas.

As it turns out, Nausedas and his Mustangs are getting pretty good at playing with a limited roster.

With starters Alex Ratner and Jon Spatola coming off the flu earlier in the week and regular contributors Jay Ratner and Nick Malucelli out with their own ailments, Marlboro - the No. 6 seed in the Shore Conference Tournament - found a way to pull through Thursday against No. 11 Manalapan, 76-73, in overtime.

"All season, we've been through a lot," sophomore Jack Seidler said. "We have been down in so many games and we have come back just about every time. We just don't give up, no matter what the situation is."

With the win, Marlboro is back in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals for the second time in four years after making a run to the championship game back in 2017.

"It feels like we are having the injury conversation every year," Nausedas said. "But we are used to it. We have had guys hurt or sick for the last few weeks now and for most of the season, we have been relying on five or six guys at a given time."

Marlboro's five starters - Alex Ratner, Spatola, Seidler, junior Aleksy Friedman and sophomore Zack Molod - were on the floor together for all but two seconds of the 36-minute game. Ratner picked up his second foul in the final seconds of the third quarter and went to the bench while Marlboro played defense for the last two seconds of the quarter.

"It's crazy, honestly - it really has been," Seidler said. "With people being sick, people being out, injured, but it's really next man up. Zack Molod didn't really get much time in the beginning of the season and he has stepped up big in the last two games. It's just everybody knowing their role and picking up the pieces."

Ratner returned to start the fourth and scored 10 of his team-high 26 points from that point on to help the Mustangs rally after trailing for nearly the entire second half. Manalapan scored the last six points of the first half to tie the game, 33-33, heading to the break and made it an 11-0 run with the first five points of the third quarter.

The Mustangs took their first lead of the second half with 1:32 to go, when Friedman stole the ball in the back court and hit a left-handed floater to make it 60-59.

"That was memorable," Friedman said. "Once I got it, I just took it right at him (the defender)."

After a miss, Manalapan forced a turnover and junior Chris Frontera provided an answer in the form of a go-ahead three-pointer to make it 62-60 in favor of Manalapan with 45 seconds left.

Friedman came through again for Marlboro by drawing a foul in the lane and hitting a pair of game-tying free throws with 32 seconds left. Manalapan had a pair of chances to tie the game and had one more inbounds opportunity under the basket, but turned the ball over with 1.9 seconds left. Ratner missed a three-quarter-court shot and the game advanced into overtime.

Friedman scored nine of his 19 points in the fourth quarter to help the Mustangs push the game into overtime. Seidler added 15 points and 12 rebounds, Molod scored nine points and Spatola finished with seven.

"We just trust each other," Friedman said. "We all know Alex can go get a bucket when we need it. I can get a bucket, Jack can get a bucket, Spatola can get a bucket, and Nick Molod has been stepping up and making big plays for us."

Moving into overtime, Manalapan senior Ryan Knorr opened the scoring, but Spatola answered with a three-point play that catapulted Marlboro in front, 65-64. Ratner then scored on a pull-up and Seidler knocked down a pair of free throws to cap a 7-0 run that put the Mustangs ahead, 69-64.

Knorr found senior Blake Henis for a layup and hit a three-pointer, with a lay-in by Ratner in between to make it 71-69 in favor of Marlboro. After Molod made one of two foul shots for Marlboro, sophomore Gabe Blackwell hit a pair of free throws to pull Manalapan within one at 72-71.

Ratner and Knorr traded points, with Ratner hitting two free throws and Knorr driving for a layup to get the deficit back down to 74-73. Spatola then came through with a pair of free throws with 8.6 seconds left and Knorr's long, contested three-pointer with the seconds ticking down came up short.

Knorr poured in a game-high 28 points to lead Manalapan, while Frontera added 14 on four three-pointers and Blackwell came off the bench to score 13 with Henis battling foul trouble throughout the game. Henis finished with eight points before fouling out with 1:14 left in overtime.

"We just had to keep Knorr out of the paint," Nausedas said. "Knorr is amazing. We couldn't stop that kid. To lose a game like this sucks for him. He played his heart out. He can score. I'm not going to miss playing him."

Manalapan faced significantly more foul trouble than Marlboro, with starters Henis and Dan Kamen both fouling out. Marlboro, meanwhile, stayed out of significant foul trouble until Ratner picked up his fourth in overtime - a significant factor considering the Mustangs were playing with an inexperienced bench.

"On offense, we were attacking the rim," Friedman said. "We were taking good shots, we weren't really settling for jumpers and that got us some foul shots. We played good help defense, we tried to not let Knorr go to the middle and tried to make him go baseline. We know somebody is always ready to help."

"We knew needed to get Henis in foul trouble," Seidler said of the 6-foot-5 Manalapan center. "We're kind of a smaller team, so having him in the game was a big factor for them. We knew if we could get him into foul trouble early, that would be big for us."

With a manageable foul situation, Marlboro went to its press defense in the fourth quarter and turned the game frantic at the exact right moment.

"We didn't want to press in the beginning because we knew we weren't very deep," Nausedas said. "We waited for some spots, we tried to double Knorr in the press and after a while, we just said, 'Screw it, let's go our way.' We did the press the way we do it and we gave up some layups, but it worked. It sped up the game when we needed to speed it up."

Not only did Marlboro have to get through an overtime scare Thursday; the Mustangs had to do it against a team it beat twice during the regular season by a combined 11 points. After Thursday's win, make that three wins by a combined 14 points - including three-point margins to decided each of the last two meetings.

"Honestly, I was pretty scared about today," Friedman said. "The first two times, I felt like we had it in the bag. Today, I knew they were going to give it their all and I knew we were going to have to figure out how to stop him."

Next up for Marlboro is No. 3 Toms River North in the SCT quarterfinals Sunday at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena - the home gym of Toms River North. Sunday will mark the second time the teams have met in a tournament this season, with Toms River North defeated the Mustangs, 94-81, in the WOBM Christmas Classic semifinals in December.

"It's not going to be easy," Seidler said of playing Toms River North. "They have Jakari (Spence) who can score at will. They have Najae (Hallenbeck) who is a big threat inside. They also have (Colin) Baker, who is a knockdown shooter, so we're really going to have to watch the film from last game and see what we did wrong."

Nausedas said he expects Alex Ratner and Spatola to be much closer to 100 percent by Sunday, if not all the way back to full strength after pushing through. The Mustangs coach also said he is optimistic Jay Ratner will be ready to play by Sunday as well.

"Jay is going through the tail-end of something and he should be okay by Sunday," Nausedas said. "He played through it early in the week because that's just the kind of team we are. Guys don't want to miss a game but sometimes you've got to take a step back and get healthy."

Marlboro has lost only five times this season and three of those losses are to Middletown South, which was upset by Mater Dei Prep on Thursday. That means the winner of the Marlboro-Toms River North game will be the better seed in the semifinal against the winner of Mater Dei and Red Bank Catholic. If the Mustangs can find a way past the Mariners, the path could be laid out for a second trip to the final in four years - both of which would be as the No. 6 seed.

"It's definitely not an easy road, but we are going to make a run at it," Nausedas said. "These guys really want it, especially Alex. He is our senior, he was here the last time we got to the final and got to experienced that run and I know he would love to get back there."

 

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