Boys Basketball – Marlboro Rallies Past Lenape to Reach First Ever Group 4 Final
EGG HARBOR TWP. -- Marlboro's recent boys basketball history with buzzer-beaters has been well-documented and even if it was not, there is no forgetting the feeling of watching your season end on a last shot.
The Mustangs have felt that hurt in each of the last two seasons and as Lenape's Tekie Clark released a three-point shot just before the final buzzer of the NJSIAA Group IV semifinal at Egg Harbor Township High School Wednesday night, Marlboro coach Mike Nausedas had that sinking feeling in his stomach return.
"Everything froze at that point," Nausedas said. "I was like, 'I can't believe this is going to happen again.' Every shot they got up in the last two minutes was like torture."
This time, though, the ball did not break Marlboro's collective heart. It sailed over the rim, hit the gym floor, and reminded Nausedas and his team that sometimes there is joy at the end of that buzzer.
For the 28th time this season, Marlboro celebrated at the end of that final horn and this celebration was like none before it. The Mustangs erased a 13-point first-half deficit to beat South Jersey Group IV champion Lenape, 49-47, to advance to the Group IV championship game for the first time in school history.
"These guys were exhausted," Nausedas said. "But this is it. Every time out, it's who wants it more. We wanted it more. These guys don't die. I don't know how they do it."
With each game, Marlboro is recycling that term: "first time in school history." The Mustangs won the program's first sectional championship Monday night in a win over Trenton, which came eight days after winning its first ever Shore Conference Tournament championship with a win over Trenton.
Now, the Mustangs will head to Jersey Mike's Arena -- formerly the RAC -- in Piscataway Sunday to take on Elizabeth with the intention of winning the school's first overall Group IV championship and advancing to the Tournament of Champions for the first time ever.
"Our goal has been to play at Rutgers," Marlboro senior Jack Seidler said. "That's really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Once it got to the end there and the game is close, we have been saying every single game that we have been playing together since third grade and we don't want it to end yet. We want to make it to Rutgers, we want to play in the TOC and we just got one step closer tonight."
Before planning its weekend trip to Rutgers, Marlboro had to get past a team led by a point guard who is already signed to go to Rutgers in the fall. Derek Simpson led a senior-powered Lenape squad to 27 wins in 2021-22 and while he scored a team-high 15 points Wednesday night, it came on 5-for-18 (27.7 percent) shooting from the field against a Marlboro defense that had to carry the Mustangs to the finish line.
When it wasn't the defense carrying Marlboro, it was Seidler. The 6-foot-5 senior scored a game-high 24 points and when the rest of his team could hardly make a shot in the first half, he picked up the slack by scoring 16 of the Mustangs' 22 points before the break. Seidler shot 5-for-8 from the field in the first half while the rest of his team was just 3-for-16.
At one point during the second quarter, Lenape ballooned its lead to 25-12 thanks to a hot start by senior Aidan Anderson, who scored 12 of his 14 points in the first 12 minutes of the game.
"We were late getting back on defense, miscommunications -- we were kind of all over the place," Seidler said. "I don't know if it was the long bus ride or we were just tired, but once we got our energy, got a couple shots to fall, the whole game turned around."
In the final four minutes of the first half, however, Marlboro's defense shut down Lenape and the Mustangs mustered a 10-0 run to close the deficit to three by the break.
"At the beginning of the game, we came out a little flat," Seidler said. "We had no energy and we said, 'We've got to pick this up. This isn't how we want to go out. Win or lose, we don't want to play like this.'
"We knew this game was ours. We just had to play harder."
That set up a nip-and-tuck second half between the two Group IV sectional champions and down the stretch, Seidler started to get some help on offense. After trailing, 36-29, following a Simpson three-pointer, Marlboro got the deficit down to 36-34 by the end of the third, capped by a three-point play by senior Vin Spatola as time expired in the quarter.
Seniors Zack Molod and Jon Spatola could not find their respective shots Wednesday night, but both got to the rim in the second half for key baskets, with Molod scoring all eight of his points on layups and Spatola adding six on three shots within 10 feet of the basket.
Senior Jay Ratner, meanwhile, struggled to finish in the paint against Lenape's big men, but hit two crucial three-pointers -- the second of which tied the game, 39-39, with 6:35 to go. That was the first tie of the game since the opening tip.
Ratner also gave Marlboro its first lead since the opening two minutes of the game, taking a pass from Seidler on a cut to the basket and finishing it for a 46-45 Mustangs lead with 2:51 left. The senior forward also scored eight points, all coming in the second half.
Lenape answered on a back-down and finish by senior Tayvon Gaither -- Lenape's third-leading scorer for the season, as well as in the game with his 11 points. Seidler came right back and earned a trip to the free-throw line, with the senior calmly draining both for a 48-47 Marlboro lead with 1:53 to go.
On the other end, Simpson came up short on a three-point attempt and after he got his own rebound, his follow-up shot was long. Marlboro retrieved the ball, brought it up court and successfully bled the clock to 35.7 seconds before Lenape sent Seidler to the line for a 1-and-1.
This time, though, Seidler missed the front end and the Indians had another chance to take the lead. Simpson gashed the Mustangs defense and got to the rim, but missed the layup. He rebounded his own miss, but his follow-up shot from point-blank range missed again and Seidler hauled in the rebound with 14 seconds left, drawing a foul in the process.
Seidler made the front end of the 1-and-1 this time to stretch the Marlboro lead to 49-47, but again came up short on his second attempt, giving the Indians a chance to tie the game or even win it with a three-pointer.
"I'm shooting over 80 percent from the foul-line and I missed a couple at the end there and it really got me nervous," Seidler said. "I didn't want it to end there, especially after I was the one that missed the foul shots."
Marlboro has had two hard lessons on defending final shots, with South Brunswick beating the Mustangs at the buzzer in the 2020 Central Jersey Group IV final when Seidler, Jon Spatola and Ratner were sophomore starters and Manasquan winning it with one second left in the 2021 Shore Conference final.
"At that point, it's switching on everything, contesting everything, don't foul, don't leave your feet," Nausedas said. "All that is drilled in our heads."
"Obviously, you want to prevent them from getting to the basket. Taking a rushed three at the buzzer is a tough shot for anyone. But really, you're not thinking about anything. You're just running around, You're just trying to keep them from getting a good look and waiting to hear that final buzzer. You don't really know how much time is left. You're just trying to make sure the ball doesn't go in the basket. Thankfully, it didn't. I don't know what I would have done if it did."
Lenape moved the ball quickly on its last possession, but it did not move to Anderson, who was calling for it at the three-point line on the left wing. Instead, it whipped around to Clark, who pump-faked to shake off a defender, then got off the potential winning three-point shot just before the buzzer sounded.
Right after Marlboro's players and coaches had a little more than one second to dread a third straight buzzer-beater to end their season, they watched the shot sail over the rim and erupted in celebration.
"That ball was up in the air, I couldn't describe it," Seidler said. "My heart stopped for a second. We saw the ball didn't go in and we realized we're heading to Rutgers. It's an amazing feeling."
"I knew we could get to a Shore Conference final and maybe have a chance at a sectional, but to get to Rutgers?," Nausedas said. " This is amazing. It's like a dream come true. Not many people can do this. This team, though, they ready for anything. And they are capable of anything."