TOMS RIVER - Since emerging as a Shore Conference powerhouse two seasons ago, the Mater Dei Prep boys basketball team has changed some from the 2015-16 season. A stifling, deep defensive team has become a balanced six-man rotation that relies on its offensive guard play.

With two starters down for a second straight game of the Shore Conference Tournament Sunday, the Seraphs turned back the clock and won with a dominant defensive performance with contributions from many sources.

Mater Dei, the No. 2 seen in the SCT, edged No. 7 Manasquan, 46-43, Sunday at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena to reach the SCT semifinals for the third straight year despite playing without senior starters Kenny Jones and Adam Afifi for the second straight game.

Mater Dei sophomore Jamir Watkins. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Mater Dei sophomore Jamir Watkins. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"I told the kids in the locker room, 'I don't know how we won this game,'" Mater Dei coach Ben Gamble said. "We shot 17-for-30 from the free-throw line, 1-for-14 from three and committed nine turnovers. We had to rely on what's been our trademark, and that's our defense."

Sophomore Jamir Watkins led the all-around team effort with an all-around effort of his own, putting up 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists while filling in one of the two vacated starting spots.

Junior Alexander Rice added 10 points while Kyle Cardaci added nine for Mater Dei. Both totals were below the season averages for both, but both Rice and Cardaci were integral in the defensive effort. Rice spent a significant amount of the game guarding Manasquan point guard Ryan Flanagan, while Cardaci shadowed junior standout Brad McCabe and held him to seven points.

"We're down some pretty good scorers that have had a lot to do with our success early in the season," Rice said. "For us to be down them, we need to really pick it up on defense and that's what we've been trying to do without those guys."

Flanagan led the Warriors with 14 and four assists and had the ball in his hands in the final seconds with a chance to tie the game. With time winding down, Flanagan left his feet for a shot, but Rice got his hand on the ball and forced the Manasquan point guard into a double-clutch prior to his final shot.

"There was a big focus for us on McCabe and with Flanagan, you saw you can't go by the scouting report all the time," Gamble said. "He's not a big three-point shooter but he hit two threes that kept them in the game."

Although Mater Dei could not shake Manasquan, the Seraphs led for virtually the entire game, trailing only after Flanagan scored on Manasquan's first possession of the game. The Warriors cut the Seraphs lead to one four different times in the second half, only to have Mater Dei push the lead back up in each instance.

The biggest shot while Mater Dei nursed a one-run lead was by senior Kyle Devaney, who buried a three-pointer for his only points of the game with 2:20 left to go, putting his team ahead, 42-38.

"Coach has been telling me to keep looking for my shot and to shoot it when I'm open and all those things," Devaney said. "I got a wide open look so I shot it and it turned out to be a big momentum swing for us."

Mater Dei's last two wins did not exhibit the program's dominance over the last three seasons. The Seraphs overcame a seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Ocean with Jones and Afifi on the bench in that game as well.

"It's brought us closer together as a team," Rice said. "Guys have stepped up and made the most of their opportunities and it's made us band together as a team and we're hopefully going to get those guys back and be even better."

According to Gamble, Jones began feeling ill last Sunday, when he played in a loss to Montclair Immaculate. Afifi, meanwhile, has been nursing a shoulder injury all season and Gamble said he aggravated it on Tuesday at practice.

The Seraphs will have three days to rest up before taking the court again Thursday against No. 3 Rumson-Fair Haven.

"This is all team," Gamble said. "It's what I preach. It's not about individuals. One goes down, then the next guy has to be ready to step up and do the job."


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