TOMS RIVER - Mater Dei Prep coach Ben Gamble is always looking for ways to motivate his team in practice and in the days leading up to his team's Shore Conference Tournament semifinal game Thursday against Rumson-Fair Haven, he did not have to look hard.

Gamble read more than one published prediction forecasting that the defending champions would not make it past Thursday and the whispers that Rumson was catching his team at the perfect time.

Instead, the Seraphs turned the doubt from the outside to motivation from within and the result was a 70-53 statement win at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena over a Bulldogs team that entered the game on an 18-game winning streak.

“We love it,” senior guard Yasin Pretlow said of playing the underdog role. “When we’re in practice, that gives us the intensity level we need. Everybody is going against us, nobody wants to see us win, so we want to win and prove everybody wrong.”

With Thursday's win, Mater Dei advances to the Shore Conference Tournament championship game for the third consecutive season and will take on Shore Conference Class B Central division rival and top-seeded Ranney Saturday, 8 p.m., at the OceanFirst Bank Center on the campus of Monmouth University.

On Saturday, Mater Dei will have a chance to make history by becoming just the third team to win more than two consecutive conference tournament championships. Christian Brothers Academy won four consecutive championships from 1993 to 1996 and Neptune won a record seven straight from 1961 to 1967.

“That’s nice,” Gamble said of getting a chance to play for a third consecutive conference championship in three years at the helm. “Did I envision that coming here? No, but I’ve worked pretty hard, the team has worked pretty hard, and they have bought in to what I’m saying. It’s really nice and it’s great for the school, too.”

Sophomore Jamir Watkins led the charge on Thursday with a game-high 20 points. Watkins carried the second-half scoring load with 15 points after the break, while Pretlow and fellow senior Kyle Cardaci combined for 25 of Mater Dei's 35 points in the first half. Cardaci scored 12 of his 18 points before the half while Pretlow scored all 13 of his points in the first 16 minutes.

"With the way I started the game, I definitely felt it today," said Cardaci, who scored nine points in the quarterfinals against Manasquan. "Last game, I wasn't getting as many touches as usual, which was fine. Today I felt a lot better."

Pretlow was particularly effective in breaking down Rumson's defense off the dribble, which was the source of his six assists in the game. His drive-and-kick game helped Mater Dei neutralize one of the state's best shot-blockers, Rumson senior Elijah McAllister - by drawing him away from where the ball was going.

"I felt like I was able to get by my defender and draw the big man," Pretlow said. "We knew that he attacks and jumps for everything, so I just wanted to get into a jumpstop and find whichever one of my teammates were open and they were knocking down shots."

The 6-foot-1 Pretlow also elevated for a two-handed putback dunk that gave Mater Dei a 29-18 lead in the second-quarter.

Watkins and Cardaci also got in on the rim-rocking action, with Watkins hammering home a one-handed dunk in the first quarter and Cardaci picking off a pass and taking it in for the one-handed flush.

Cardaci's dunk was part of a crucial 10-0 run by the Seraphs after Rumson had pulled within 38-32. Watkins keyed the run with a pair of three-pointers, with Cardaci's dunk and a shot off the glass by senior Kenny Jones accounting for the other four points during the burst.

Only a sophomore, Watkins has been a force for Mater Dei during its run to the final. The versatile 6-6 transfer from Trenton Catholic led the team with 17 points, eight rebounds and six steal in a quarterfinal win over Manasquan before following that up with 20 points on 4-for-6 shooting from beyond the three-point line.

"Once Jamir transferred, we knew he was going to be a focus of our offense," Pretlow said. "He is always going to have a mismatch. He's and exceptional talent and we knew once he was able to get into the system that we were running as a team, he was going to be the key."

As a team, Mater Dei shot 10-for-16 from three-point range, with Cardaci, Pretlow and senior Kyle Devaney all knocking down two apiece.

The big game from Watkins helped Mater Dei answer Rumson's talented sophomore. Phillip Wheeler scored 15 points on 5-for-6 shooting from the floor and 4-for-5 from beyond the arc off the bench, but was mired in foul trouble that limited his time on the court.

Wheeler hit his first three-point attempt and sent the Rumson student section into a frenzy with a one-handed dunk as Mater Dei sophomore Isiah Alston fouled him. Wheeler completed the three-point play and added another three-pointer to cap a nine-point first quarter.

In the second, however, Watkins drew a second foul on Wheeler and went right after him again to draw his third foul just seconds later. Wheeler picked up his fourth foul shortly after entering the game again in the third, although he did manage to avoid fouling out.

Junior Ian O'Connor led Rumson with 18 points, but it was not enough to pick up the slack for a Bulldogs offense that shot 7-for-19 and just 3-for-14 without Wheeler. Rumson also shot just 10-for-18 from the free-throw line.

"Coming into the postseason, we started to condition more and put the focus back on defense," Cardaci said. "We pride ourselves on our defense and that's what our practices have focused on in the last few weeks because our defense leads to our offense.

"We were a lot better conditioned (than Rumson). They were getting tired at the end and we just kept going. I don't think any of us were tired in the fourth quarter."

Mater Dei got a spiritual lift with the returns of Jones and fellow senior Adam Afifi from a two-game absence. Both missed Mater Dei's first two games of the tournament, Jones due to the flu and Afifi with a shoulder injury. Both came off the bench and played limited minutes relative to their normal workloads, but adding them back to the lineup served as a morale boost and lengthened the rotation.

"When Kenny comes back and Adam comes back, it takes pressure off of me and all of the guys on the team," Pretlow said. "Just knowing they are there makes us know we don't have have to try to do as much because there is all that other talent to fill in those spots."

That deeper pool of players will be key as Mater Dei gears up to face Ranney for the third time this year. The Panthers won both meetings, but the Seraphs had the Shore's No. 1 team down by two with 1:30 to go before Bryan Antoine's two clutch baskets turned the tide and sparked Ranney to a 65-61 win.

“Playing Ranney so much, we know everything they do,” Pretlow said. “Now, it’s just a brain game. You have to be smart, because you know that they have good talent, so you have to be able to adjust to that.

A strong fourth-quarter performance leading up to that has Mater Dei feeling good about its chances on Saturday, especially since the Seraphs get to play that underdog role again.

“I think we’re going to be a different team from the last two games,” senior guard Kyle Cardaci said. “We’ve proven we can compete with anyone and we think we have a really good chance.”


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