TOMS RIVER - The Mater Dei boys basketball team is no stranger to Shore Conference Tournament comebacks and in order to preserve their latest high-wire act Tuesday in the SCT semifinals against No. 5 seed Toms River North, the Seraphs turned to their best player.

Senior Elijah Barnes threw down a dunk as he was fouled for the front end of a key three-point play and came through with a key block moments later as the top-seeded Seraphs put away the Mariners, 73-68, to advance to the SCT championship game for the second straight year.

Mater Dei senior Elijah Barnes. (Photo by Ray Richardson)
Mater Dei senior Elijah Barnes. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

"Four minutes left on the clock, I looked at my teammates and said, 'This is it. I don't want to go out like this,'" Barnes said. "I want to make history and repeat (as Shore Conference champions). So we got together, played some defense and made some big plays."

Barnes finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds to lead Mater Dei, which fell behind 24-14 in the first quarter. Junior Kyle Cardaci also poured in 20 points and junior Kenny Jones added 13 points and 10 assists for the Seraphs.

"This is a better team than last year," Mater Dei coach Ben Gamble said of Toms River North, which the Seraphs also beat in last year's SCT semifinal, 62-50. "Believe me, I was worried about this game. They got out to the lead, it's in their gym, they have momentum. This is a very good team. You could see why they were 24-1."

Senior Sean O'Donnell led Toms River North with 21 points on seven three-pointers, including one after he stole the inbounds pass with 30 seconds left to cut Mater Dei's lead to 69-68.

Junior Yasin Pretlow missed the front end of a one-and-one to give the Mariners a chance to take the lead with a basket, but Toms River North committed the first of two turnovers on back-to-back possessions.

Cardaci and Jones each hit a pair of free throws to put the game away.

Barnes scored six baskets as he was fouled and hit five of the ensuing free throws to give him five old-fashioned three-point plays in the game. None of those was bigger than his last one, which developed with 1:30 left on the clock. Jones dribbled around a defender and turned up court and through the lane before sliding a pass to Barnes on the block.

The 6-6 senior went straight up and threw-down a two-handed dunk over Toms River North senior Jaden Rhoden as he absorbed the contact. Barnes then made the free throw to give Mater Dei a 67-62 lead with 1:19 left.

On the very next possession, Barnes blocked a shot by Rhoden at the rim, which led to a pair of free throws by Jones to stretch the lead to seven - the largest of the game for Mater Dei.

"It was great," Cardaci said of Barnes's plays. "It gave us momentum toward the end of the game and we really needed that from him as a leader to give us that momentum to finish the game."

Barnes's meetings at the rim with Rhoden were fitting since the two were teammates just two seasons ago at Central Regional. Barnes spent one year at Central - as a sophomore - while Rhoden spent his first two high school years there before transferring to Toms River North before last season.

"It's always great playing against an old teammate," said Barnes, who has done that on a number of occasions this year since Mater Dei has faced both of his former teams - Central and Freehold Borough. "Me and him were talking the whole game."

Rhoden finished with 19 points for Toms River North and senior Darrion Carrington added 14 points, six rebounds, seven assists and three steals.

The Mariners stormed out to an early 10-point lead and led the entire first half, although Mater Dei did manage to pull within 36-34 by halftime. A drive by Jones and a three by Cardaci gave the Seraphs their first lead, 39-36, but the Mariners responded when O'Donnell hit threes on consecutive possessions to put the Mariners back in front.

"I don't think our guys embrace (being down)," Gamble said. "I think they were just shocked. Right before the half, we got it down to two and I think that helped us a lot."

For the third time in three tournament games, Toms River North hit at least 10 three-pointers. The Mariners hit 10 in a 74-50 round-of-16 win over Christian Brothers Academy and 14 in a 79-35 rout of Rumson-Fair Haven in Sunday's quarterfinals. O'Donnell did the majority of damage from behind the arc and the despite the high number of three-pointers made by team as a whole, the Mariners outside of O'Donnell shot just 3-for-20 from three-point range.

Toms River North also forced 11 Mater Dei turnovers in the first half while committing just three of its own. The turnovers in the second half were 7-7.

The Seraphs also made up for a cold start by hitting the glass. Mater Dei enjoyed a 12-7 edge in offensive rebounds.

"We couldn't get anything and this is their gym, so we knew they were going to hit their shots," Barnes said. "You look around, I'm the biggest guy on the court, so I've got to do something about it."

Mater Dei will take on No. 6 Marlboro, which upset No. 2 Ranney, in Saturday's championship game at Ocean First Bank Center on the campus of Monmouth University at 7:30 p.m. The Seraphs won last year's championship by rallying from an 18-point deficit over the final nine-plus minutes to stun CBA and win the program's first championship.

"It's great for us," Jones said. "I'm happy to be going back (to Monmouth) in front of that big crowd."


Box Score

Mater Dei Prep 73, Toms River North 68

Toms River North (24-2)2412171568
Mater Dei Prep (23-3)1618162373

Toms River North (68): Darrion Carrington 5 4-6 14, Holden Petrick 1 1-2 4, Travis Holland 0 0-0 0, Jaden Rhoden 7 5-7 19, Mike Nyisztor 2 2-2 7, Sean O'Donnell 7 0-0 21, Mike Husni 1 0-0 3. Totals: 23 12-17 68

Three-pointers: Petrick, Nyisztor, O'Donnell 7, Husni

Mater Dei Prep (73): Kenny Jones 4 5-6 13, Kyle Cardaci 7 3-4 20, Adam Afifi 2 0-1 4, Elijah Barnes 8 5-6 21, Elijah Mitchell 3 0-0 6, Yasin Pretlow 3 0-1 7, Marvin Pierre 1 0-0 2, Brandon Wilson 0 0-0 0, Eddie Lewis 0 0-0 0, Rajae Muhammed 0 0-0 0. Totals: 28 13-18 73

Three-pointers: Cardaci 3, Pretlow


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