MIDDLETOWN - Not one player who saw a full minute of playing time for the Mater Dei boys basketball team Thursday against newly-established division rival Ranney had ever suited up for a game or spent a minute in a classroom at Mater Dei High School before this school year.

Factor in the ease with which the Seraphs have seemingly steamrolled their Shore Conference Class B Central competition, and there might seem to be a disconnect between the players and the accomplishment of ending an 11-year division title drought - a dry spell that was due for a welcome shower as soon as the school decided to bring in new coach Ben Gamble and the cavalry of players that followed him to the New Monmouth section of Middletown.

And yet, despite the fact that none of the players that made it to Thursday's box score had ever invested anything in Mater Dei before this season, there was indeed a sense of accomplishment for a group made up of players that had not done much separately but have looked the part of a unit bound for something special in this scenario that seemed so improbable one year ago.


NyQuan McCombs led Mater Dei to a division-clinching win Thursday against Ranney. (Photo by Rob Samuels)

"It's been a lot of hard work," junior Elijah Barnes said. "Expectations were high. I know a lot of people were expecting big things with coach Gamble coming in and bringing everybody with him, but our expectations for ourselves were even higher."

With its 64-52 win over a Ranney team that is also making program history during its now 16-2 start to the season, Mater Dei clinched no worse than a share of the Class B Central championship, and considering Thursday's margin of victory was the closest any B Central opponent has come to beating the Seraphs this year, a win over either Asbury Park or St. Rose to make the team's first division title since 2005 an outright one seems a foregone conclusion.

To take it one step further, once Gamble brought over a core of players from his successful 2014-15 Cardinal McCarrick team and augmented that core with five more talented additions, Mater Dei's ascent to the top of the division seemed a foregone conclusion before the first practice started.

None of the expectations, nor any of the trials and tribulations endured by any of Gamble's players, nor the coach himself, mattered Thursday night after the final buzzer. With all of those expectations heaped upon Mater Dei this season, the Seraphs players are finally starting to enjoy the fruits of their labor and that feeling is not lost on them.

Barnes entered high school an athletic, 6-foot-6 inch forward for a Freehold Borough team looking to rebuild its varsity program. Looking for a different environment to grow as a player, Barnes transferred to Central Regional for his sophomore year, where he had a chance to play in the Shore Conference and NJSIAA Tournaments with a mix of outgoing seniors and younger players like himself.

Ultimately, neither of those experiences offered the chance to win like playing for Gamble at Mater Dei did and Barnes made the leap one more time and has seemingly found his home. He delivered another solid performance down low Thursday with 17 points and six rebounds, including 10 points during a 14-0 run that turned a 15-13 deficit into a 27-15 Mater Dei lead in the second quarter.

For Barnes, actually being part of a championship team, no matter how much he and his teammates expected it, meant something.

"It's been great," Barnes said. "We're always trying to send a statement. No matter the opponent or the score, we want the other team to know what we're about and that's defense. We're going to defend for four quarters and there's no let-up."

McCombs has already been part of a rebuild with Gamble. The 5-foot-8 guard was an All-Greater-Middlesex-Conference guard for Cardinal McCarrick last season, when Gamble led the Eagles to a 20-win season in his first season at the helm. His leadership has carried over with the change in uniforms and he again led the Seraphs on Thursday by scoring 18 points, handing out six assists and guarding Ranney leading scorer Bryan Antoine.

"It feels good to do it at a new school," senior NyQuan McCombs said. "They hadn't done it since '05, so we wanted to change the tradition here."

Although Antoine scored 17 points, he shot 5-for-13, did not make a three-pointer and scored three of his field goals on fast breaks and another on a putback.

"There's no doubt in my mind that Nyke McCombs is the best on-ball defender in the Shore," Gamble said following a win over St. Joseph Montvale Sunday in which McCombs held Green Knights leading scorer Nate Garvey to 12 points on 3-for-12 shooting.

Junior Elijah Mitchell, senior Josh Green and senior Bryan Harris also came over from Cardinal McCarrick with McCombs and gamble after the Diocese of Metuchen announced the closing of the school by the end of the 2014-15 school year. Although the quartet got to experience a program resurrection last year in South Amboy, they have experienced it on a grander scale this year.

While Barnes was familiar with the challenges of the Shore Conference and the Cardinal McCarrick group with Gamble, senior Kyle Elliot, sophomore Kenny Jones, senior Marvin Pierre and junior Maleek McKnight came from up north to play at a new school for a new high school coach. Elliot, Jones and McKnight all transferred from Marist in Bayonne and Pierre left Rahway High School to play football and basketball at Mater Dei.

Elliot has paid consistent dividends from the beginning of the season and delivered another strong two-way performance Thursday that included 15 points - all in the second half - and five steals. After Ranney pulled within 52-45, Elliot sank a baseline fadeaway as he was fouled to push the lead back to nine and later buried a pair of free throws inside of a minute to put his team ahead, 60-50.

Jones has been a welcome addition on both sides of the court since becoming eligible on Jan. 19 following a 30-day stint on the bench to honor the NJSIAA transfer rule. He has provided an extra scorer in the starting lineup as well as an extra ball-handler alongside McCombs. Thursday night, he made his presence felt with four assists and three steals.

Pierre and McKnight also sat out for 30 days alongside Jones. Pierre came off the bench and gave the Seraphs a shot in the arm on the glass after Ranney dominated the boards in the first quarter.

"He came in (during the first half) and changed the game," Gamble said of Pierre. "I went to the depth guys in the third quarter and they kind of let them back in the game with some careless mistakes and turnovers on offense. That hurt us, but outside of that stretch, I thought the bench gave us a lift when we needed it, which is what we need them to do."

Beating Ranney to clinch the share of the division title also made the accomplishment sweeter. The Panthers gave Mater Dei its toughest B Central challenge to date Thursday, and despite the fact that the 12-point margin of victory was similar to the 14-point Mater Dei win on Feb. 12, Ranney's largest deficit on Thursday was 13 as opposed to 27 earlier in the year and the Panthers pulled to within seven points with a little more than three minutes remaining.

Ranney also found an offense that worked against a traditionally-stingy Mater Dei defense, and it involved isolating freshman wing Scottie Lewis right from the start. Lewis scored eight of his game-high 20 points in the first quarter and also contributed nine rebounds and three blocked shots. He shot 8-for-16 from the field and seven of those eight field goals came inside the paint on an array of drives, cuts, slips and putbacks.

Lewis, however, fouled out with 1:09 remaining and Ranney trailing by eight. His fifth foul came 1:25 after freshman starting center Chris Autino fouled out.

After turning the ball over on six of its first eight possessions, Ranney rallied to take a 12-10 lead after a three by Alex Klatsky - the fourth of the four starting freshmen for the Panthers. Lewis highlighted the run with a dunk over Barnes and he later blocked a dunk attempt at the rim by Barnes. A pair of free throws by Antoine gave Ranney a 15-13 lead, which was the last advantage the visitor would enjoy.

Barnes would get his revenge when Mater Dei answered with a 14-0 run to go up 27-15 by the middle of the second quarter. Barnes threw down a dunk off a dish from McCombs for two of his 10 points during that run, with McCombs and Pierre each adding a basket as well.

"It's no surprise they tried to get their two freshmen going because they're both great players," Barnes said. "If they both get going, the rest of the team feeds off that. We just tried to make both of them work for everything."

Mater Dei would not let Ranney get closer than seven the rest of the way and Mater Dei twice built the lead to 13 - once on a pullup jumper by McCombs in the third and again on a three from the corner by Elliot early in the fourth. Elliot scored nine of his 15 second-half points in the fourth quarter.

Thursday's game completed a two-game regular-season series between the teams, but considering they sport a combined record of 32-3, there remains a distinct possibility that both could advance far enough in both the Shore Conference and NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B Tournaments to meet at least one more time.

The Seraphs now turn their attention to finishing off an outright B Central championship, followed by a regular-season finale against Notre Dame. With a 13-game winnings streak that could potentially climb to 16 before the start of the postseason, Gamble and his squad hope they will have done enough to earn the No. 1 seed in the Shore Conference Tournament. The Seraphs will have to overcome worthy No. 1 candidates Christian Brothers Academy, Manasquan and defending champion Rumson-Fair Haven.

"I would like to be the number one (seed)," Gamble said. "That would be a great accomplishment for the school. It's a rebirth here. We won the division for the first time since 2005, so yeah, I would like to shoot for the number 1. If it's not there, we're still going to play hard. I think I've made my feelings known that we've got a good shot to win the Shore."

"If we're the one, we'll take it," Barnes said. "If we're the two, we've got something to prove."