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TINTON FALLS - The Marlboro boys basketball team has never won a postseason championship of any kind and nearly a year ago to the day, the Mustangs had their best shot.

While its boys basketball history is lined with tournament heartbreak - most recently a loss to South Brunswick at the buzzer of last year's NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship game - Marlboro's two greatest postseason moments have come against the same team.

Four years after upsetting Ranney to reach the program's first-ever Shore Conference Tournament final, the Mustangs did it again Tuesday, knocking off the second-seeded Panthers, 71-65, to reach the Shore Conference Pod A championship game Friday at top-seeded Manasquan.

PHOTO GALLERY: Marlboro at Ranney by Paula Lopez

Marlboro junior Jon Spatola shoots over Ranney junior Ryan Zan. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Ranney entered Wednesday's game unbeaten and ranked No. 8 in the state, according to NJ Advance Media, making the Panthers the highest-ranked team in the state Marlboro is believed to have ever defeated. Marlboro pulled off a similar feat in 2017, when the Mustangs - then a No. 6 seed in the Shore Conference Tournament - upset a second-seeded Ranney team led by then-sophomores Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis.

With all due respect to the 2017 team, this year's Mustangs came out of Wednesday's game far less surprised at the win they just secured on the road, although no less excited. After losing to Ranney, 68-62, on Feb. 12, the Mustangs took a look at what transpired and concluded they had what it took to beat the Panthers given a second chance.

"When we looked at that scout tape, we didn't look at anything else but our game," Marlboro coach Mike Nausedas said. "We broke down our game and what happened to us. We knew we could beat them. We knew we were better."

Once again, it was Marlboro's dynamic duo of Jon Spatola and Jack Seidler leading the way with a combined 45 points, with Spatola going off for a game-high 27 and Seidler pouring in 18 to go with six rebounds.

"To start the season, we were just going through the motions," said Seidler, whose Marlboro team began the first week of the regular season shut down due to COVID-19 protocol and did not open the season until Feb. 4. "Throughout the season, and it really started in that fourth quarter against Ranney (on Feb. 12), we knew that we needed energy in our games. From the bench to the everybody who is on the court, we knew that we not only needed to match the other team's energy, but to bring even more energy ourselves."

Spatola scored 21 of his points during a second half to remember. The 5-foot-8 guard hit big shots, handled the ball, hit 10-of-10 free throws and face-guarded Ranney sophomore standout Isaac Hester. While Hester eventually finished at his season average of 17 points, he barely touched the ball in the second half, going scoreless in the third quarter and scoring seven points in the fourth on a transition floater, two free throws and a three-pointer off a long rebound.

PHOTO GALLERY: Marlboro at Ranney by Paula Lopez

Marlboro junior Jon Spatola. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"The difference in this game was Johnny," Nausedas said. "We face-guarded Hester in the second half. That was a total difference-maker. We took him out of the game."

Speaking of the third quarter, that is when Marlboro made its big move. Ranney closed the first half with a 13-2 run to go up 33-27 at the break, but the Mustangs struck back by outscoring the Panthers, 22-9, in the third to take a 49-42 advantage heading into the fourth. Spatola scored nine in the third-quarter run by the Mustangs, which got a boost of energy from junior Vin Spatola off the bench during the run as well.

Marlboro extended its lead to as many as 15 points thanks to an 11-0 run that made it 60-45 with 5:30 to play. Jon Spatola and junior Zach Molod both hit a jumper, followed by a three by Seidler to push the lead to 11. Jon Spatola came back with another jumper to force a Ranney timeout, then senior Nick Malucelli hit a pair of free throws to make it 15.

Ranney staged a rally that pulled the Panthers back to within three inside the final 30 seconds. Hester finally got on the board in the second half with a floater that cut the deficit to 60-50 and junior Brandon Klatsky hit a three-pointer to slice it to eight, 61-53.

Hester later earned a trip to the line on a three-point attempt and hit two of the three attempts to cut Marlboro's advantage to 64-58 with two minutes to go.

Klatsky came up with a steal and layup to get it down to 66-62 with 40 seconds left and after two more Jon Spatola free throws, Hester hit a three off a long rebound to chop Marlboro's lead to 68-65 with 21.4 seconds left.

Marlboro burned 12 seconds of clock before Ranney finally gave a foul on the ensuing possession and once again, Marlboro go the ball to Jon Spatola for the free throws. Spatola hit them both to make it 70-65 and Zach Molod hit one of two after a rebound on the defensive end to seal the win for Marlboro.

No Marlboro player other than Spatola and Seidler scored in double-figures, but the Mustangs supporting cast came through in every facet of the game. Junior Jay Ratner scored nine points to go with seven rebounds while senior Nick Malucelli added seven points and seven rebounds. The two frontcourt players kept Ranney from controlling the glass and scoring on easy putback, with Panthers forwards Kyle Rhoden (10 points, 10 rebounds) and Ryan Zan (four and nine) doing relatively modest damage.

PHOTO GALLERY: Marlboro at Ranney by Paula Lopez

Marlboro junior Jay Ratner and Ranney sophomore Isaac Hester (3) go after the ball. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Vin Spatola added six points off the bench - all in the second half - and Molod scored all four of his points in the fourth quarter.

"The confidence is definitely rolling," Seidler said. "Everybody has been getting involved. There is a lot of focus on Jon and myself, and we know that we need everybody to be able to win these games."

Junior Elijah Perkins led Ranney with 21 points and as he did in the first meeting between the two teams, he got into the paint at will throughout Wednesday's game. Ratner and Malucelli did just enough to disrupt him on a number of drives and sent him to the line, where Perkins went 3-for-6.

"Perkins got to the rim every single time," Nausedas said. "We couldn't stop him. He gets downhill so well. Great player, I'm not looking forward to seeing him again next year."

PHOTO GALLERY: Marlboro at Ranney by Paula Lopez

Ranney junior Elijah Perkins surrounded by Marlboro's Jay Ratner (20) and Jack Seidler (22). (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Ranney was better at the free-throw line Wednesday than it was on Feb. 12 at Marlboro, but that is not saying much. The Panthers won the first meeting despite shooting 5-for-23 from the line and struggled again on Wednesday, going 11-for-22.

Marlboro missed three out of six from the line at one point in the fourth, but once the Mustangs made committed to getting Jon Spatola the ball, their foul-shooting woes ended. Marlboro finished 20-for-25 at the line, including 19-for-24 in the second half.

"February 12th, we were a totally different team," Nausedas said. "We had no offense. We were stagnant. We didn't move and we felt like we had better offense now. When we move, good things are going to happen because these guys have been playing together since they were like five years old.

"That's a big difference with a public-school team. These guys have been together. They're a team."

Just as they did last season, the Mustangs will play for a tournament championship, only this time it will be for a Shore championship and it will be on the road in front of a limited number of fans. It will be a stark contrast to the atmosphere on March 10, 2020, when Marlboro played host to a packed gymnasium for its first-ever sectional championship game. Ratner gave Marlboro the lead with what seemed to be the game-winning basket but South Brunswick scored as time expired to win a 72-71 thriller in the CJ IV final.

"There's a lot of pressure playing in these games, especially when it gets close," Seidler said. "But we have been here before. We know what to do. Even from last year, from our run in the state tournament, we feel confident.

On Friday, Marlboro will head south to try and knock off an 11-0 Manasquan team that has held the No. 1 spot in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 since the first set of rankings at the beginning of last year. The Warriors rallied from five-point halftime deficits in each of their last two games to beat Neptune in the quarterfinals and Christian Brothers Academy in Wednesday's semifinal round.

The last time Manasquan and Marlboro met, Marlboro surprised the Warriors in the 2018 WOBM Christmas Classic semifinals, 56-46. Manasquan was the top seed in that tournament and went on to reach the Shore Conference Tournament finals, where the Warriors lost to eventual Tournament of Champions winner Ranney.

Jon Spatola was the only current member of the team to play in that game and he scored two points in only a handful of minutes.

"It's a great program," Nausedas said of Manasquan. "We love playing against them. We have played against them a lot, especially in the WOBM Tournament that we missed so much this year. They have Ben Roy as a junior, they have length - similar to (Ranney). Whether it's Manasquan or anybody else, we're just excited to be there and playing in that last game for a championship."

"That championship game from last year, it's still in our heads," Seidler said. "That last play, we were just so close to winning that. We want to win a championship. That's been our goal the whole season and we've got another shot this Friday."

 

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