WEST LONG BRANCH - For about three quarters of the Shore Conference Tournament championship game against defending champion and top-seeded Mater Dei Prep, the Marlboro boys basketball team put itself in position to complete an improbable run to its first ever Shore Conference Tournament title.

Then Kyle Cardaci showed up.

Cardaci scored all 14 of his points in the final nine minutes of the game and the Seraphs pulled away from the No. 6 Mustangs in the fourth quarter to win, 54-41, and capture their second straight Shore Conference crown.

Mater Dei is the first team to repeat as Shore Conference champions since Christian Brothers Academy won in both 2009 and 2010 and is the first program other than CBA to win back-to-back titles since Neptune in 1980 and 1981.

Photo by Ray Richardson
Photo by Ray Richardson

"I didn't envision this happening in my first two years here," said second-year Mater Dei coach Ben Gamble, who coached at Cardinal McCarrick the year prior to his hiring at Mater Dei. "I was hoping within five years, I could win two. But I got the right group of kids and, luckily, I got the first two.

"This is a great feeling. This is a historical and a traditional Shore Conference and this is earned. There's nothing given. We earned everything we got."

Marlboro led, 32-31, in the final two minutes of the third quarter before Mater Dei finished off the period with a mini-flurry. Senior Elijah Barnes started the burst with a drive to the basket to put the Seraphs ahead, 33-32, and senior Elijah Mitchell hit a huge, 19-foot, stepback jumper as time expired to send the game to the fourth with Mater Dei ahead, 38-34.

In between the shots by Barnes and Mitchell was Cardaci, who missed his first five shots from the field and was essentially a non-factor for the first 23 minutes of the game. In the late stages of the third, however, with Marlboro beginning to wear down, the junior transfer from Holmdel came alive. He hit his first three-pointer of the game in the final minute-plus of the third to give the Seraphs a 36-32 lead and drilled two more in the first three minutes of the fourth to put the Seraphs ahead, 47-39.

After starting the game 0-for-5, Cardaci made his last five shots, including three three-pointers and a three-point play that effectively put the game away and capped the scoring.

"I came off after missing three or four shots and coach Gamble still believed in me," Cardaci said. "He said, 'Just keep on shooting. The shots will fall in. Just stay calm and just shoot.'"

Mitchell helped keep Mater Dei close by scoring all 12 of his points over the first three quarters before Cardaci caught fire and brought it home. Mitchell began his varsity career with Gamble at Cardinal McCarrick as a sophomore and is the only player on Mater Dei to play for its head coach for more than two years.

"Today, I just let the game come to me a played hard," said Mitchell, who was named the Surf Taco MVP of the game.

Mitchell also starred on defense as well, guarding Marlboro senior Dan Weiss for most of the game and also running at Mustangs point guard P.J. Ringel. Weiss hit a pair of three-pointers and scored 10 points, but did so on 4-for-13 shooting. Ringel, meanwhile, scored two points while shooting 1-for-12. Mitchell also picked off three steals and took a key charge with Mater Dei leading up 47-39.

"I come in just to play hard and do everything my team needs me to do," Mitchell said. "If we need rebounds, I got it. If it's defense, I got it."

Like last year, when Mater Dei closed the championship game on a 32-7 run over the final nine minutes to beat CBA, 50-43, the Seraphs raised their level of play down the stretch.

Elijah Mitchell accepts his game MVP award. (Photo by Ray Richardson)
Elijah Mitchell accepts his game MVP award. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

"Our conditioning is just great right now," Barnes said. "They (Marlboro) only play about six guys and once we got past those six, there's not much else."

Sophomore Dylan Kaufman led Marlboro with 12 points and 14 rebounds while senior Ryan LaRocca hit three three-pointers and finished with 11 points. Kaufman, however, shot only 2-for-9 from the free-throw line as part of a 2-for-10 game for the Mustangs from the charity stripe.

Marlboro reached its first ever Shore Conference Tournament final by beating No. 3 Freehold Township, 69-59, in the quarterfinals and upsetting No. 2 Ranney, 50-47, in the semifinals. The Mustangs led Mater Dei, 7-5, after one quarter, were tied with the Seraphs at halftime and led, 32-29, late in the third before Mater Dei's shots began to fall and its defensive pressure picked up.

"I thought we handled all the kids they threw at us pretty well," LaRocca said. "Unlike Tuesday night (against Ranney), they hit their big shots down the stretch and we didn't. I don't think it was anything we couldn't handle, it just wasn't our night."

After Marlboro won the turnover battles against both the Patriots and the Panthers in the prior two rounds, Mater Dei won it Saturday, 14-11.

"We were most worried about them getting open threes, us closing out and not being able to get back and rebound, which was a problem in the first half," said Barnes, who finished with seven points and seven boards. "We kind of locked down in the second half - boxing out, gang rebounding and that led us to the win."

"You could tell they pride themselves on defense," Weiss said. "We didn't shoot well, but that's because they play great defense."

Marlboro will look to revive its postseason magic into the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV playoffs, which begin Monday at home as the No. 4 seed against No. 13 seed Princeton.

"Not only the mental focus, but taking care of ourselves is big," Ringel said. "We'll recover from this, we'll talk to each other and we prepare to go back out on Monday and get after it again."

Mater Dei will enjoy its second straight SCT championship before turning its attention to its first-round game in the South Jersey Non-Public B bracket. The Seraphs are the No. 8 seed in the section and will host No. 9 Gloucester Catholic on Wednesday. If Mater Dei advances, it will likely play top-seeded Patrick School - the No. 1 team in the state that handled the Seraphs by 23 points at the Hoop Group Boardwalk Showcase.

"We worked so hard in practice and with all the new kids coming in, travelling from all over the place," Barnes said. "We had to get it for them more so than for us because they came here to win and we couldn't have done it without them."


Box Score

Mater Dei Prep 54, Marlboro 41

Marlboro (17-6)71314741
Mater Dei (24-3)515181654

Marlboro (41): P.J. Ringel 1 0-0 2, Ryan LaRocca 4 0-1 11, Dylan Kaufman 5 2-9 12, Justin Marcus 1 0-0 2, Dan Weiss 4 0-0 10, Brian Levine 2 0-0 4. Totals: 17 2-10 41

Three-pointers: LaRocca 3, Weiss 2

Fouled Out: Ringel

Mater Dei (54): Kenny Jones 2 1-2 5, Kyle Cardaci  5 1-1 14, Adam Afifi 0 1-2 1, Elijah Barnes 3 0-0 7, Elijah Mitchell 6 0-0 12, Yasin Pretlow 2 4-5 9, Marvin Pierre 2 0-0 4, Brandon Wilson 0 0-0 0, Eddie Lewis 0 2-2 2, Rajae Muhammad 0 0-0 0, Kyle Devaney 0 0-0 0, Jonathan Meskin 0 0-0 0, Sean Krueger 0 0-0 0. Totals: 20 9-12 54

Three-pointers: Cardaci 3, Barnes, Pretlow


Note to the Reader: This story was updated with a correction. The original version stated Mater Dei will play Roselle Catholic in the first round of the NJSIAA Tournament. Roselle Catholic's power points were corrected after the initial release of the brackets and the Lions were bumped from a No. 10 seed to the No. 6 seed in South Jersey Non-Public B.


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