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MIDDLETOWN - Middletown South boys basketball coach Jim Anderson saw the warning signs, but with his team on a 19-game winning streak, there was only so much he could say to the players on the Shore Conference's hottest team.

Anderson observed some bad habits he knew his team needed to correct and once his Eagles suffered a stunning loss to Mater Dei Prep in the Shore Conference Tournament round of 16, he knew it was time to fix the leaks and so did the rest of the team.

"The adults in the room could see certain tendencies in practice weren't as good as they needed to be," Anderson said. "We knew eventually they could catch up to us and it did."

Two weeks later, Middletown South has built a new four-game winning streak and after Thursday's 76-63 win over eighth-seeded Manalapan in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV quarterfinals, the top-seeded Eagles once again have a head of steam heading into Saturday's home sectional semifinal showdown against No. 4 South Brunswick.

Junior Luke Albrecht led the way Thursday with a game-high 24 points to go with six assists. Senior Bobby Pirie added 19 points and 11 rebounds while senior Mike Dabas chipped in 18 points, seven rebounds and three assists for Middletown South.

PHOTO GALLERY: Manalapan at Middletown South by Paula Lopez

Middletown South junior Luke Albrecht defended by Manalapan senior Dan Kamen. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"We kind of went back to basics," Pirie said of the aftermath following the Mater Dei loss. "Getting down into defensive stances and doing all of the small things you start to take for granted a little bit when things are going well."

To get to the CJ IV final four, Middletown South had to go through two opponents it had already handily beaten twice during the Shore Conference Class A North regular season. On Tuesday, the Eagles beat Howell, 91-60, to earn a third meeting with Manalapan after the Braves survived their first round game vs. Princeton, 60-54, in overtime.

For the first eight minutes of Thursday's game, Middletown South appeared primed to overmatch Manalapan again, storming out to a 27-13 at the end of the first quarter. To make matters worse for the Braves, leading scorer Ryan Knorr picked up his third foul during the quarter.

Manalapan, however, cut its deficit in half by halftime and pulled even by the 4:41 mark of the third quarter, 41-41. The visiting Braves took their first lead when senior Blake Henis scored off a feed from Knorr to make it 47-46 with under three minutes to go in the third.

"Turnovers were a little bit of an issue and we were taking some shots that were two quick," Anderson said. "One pass and a three that looks like a good shot, but it doesn't go in and we're right back on defense. Once they tied it, we started working the ball more and getting into the lane."

Middletown South finished the third quarter with a 7-1 burst, which including a go-ahead jumper by Pirie, a three-point play from Dabas and a drive to the rim by Albrecht.

Manalapan stayed within shouting distance and trailed 57-53 early in the quarter, but the Eagles ripped off a 16-3 run that ended with Middletown South leading, 73-56, with a little more than a minute to play.

"It's hard to have to beat a team three times," Pirie said. "They are familiar with us because everyone scouts and they are the ones looking to try something different, so a lot of times, we're the ones who have to adjust to something new, which is sort of what happened tonight."

Henis and fellow senior starter Dan Kamen fouled out early in the fourth quarter to put Manalapan in a precarious position for the final four 4:29 of the game. Henis led Manalapan with 18 points and Kamen contributed five points, six rebounds and six steals.

On top of his game-high scoring and assist totals, Albrecht drew the assignment of guarding Knorr, who entered Thursday averaging just barely under 22 points per game. Between the early foul trouble and Albrecht's defense, Knorr finished the first half with four points and settled for 13 points and four assists for the game.

"Luke was fired up to guard him again," Anderson said. "Luke's got enough of an ego that he wants to play against the best guards."

Senior Jason Junquet also chipped in 12 points and four assists for Manalapan.

Middletown South rode its three offensive standouts Thursday, who picked up senior and leading scorer James Anderson on an off-shooting night. Anderson finished with nine points while fellow three-point threat Jack Sheridan netted four to go with five assists.

"I thought he was trying to fight through some grabs and holds and he was getting a little frustrated," Jim Anderson said of his son and leading scorer. "The good thing is we have other guys who can step up. If you want to take one guy out, we have five other guys who can beat you in different ways."

While Albrecht topped the stat sheet, Pirie again delivered a standout performance after scoring 22 first-half points against Howell on Tuesday night. He hit a pair of three-pointers and converted a three-point play during a nine-point first-quarter, combining with Albrecht (11) to score 20 of the team's 27 points in the opening eight minutes.

"Throughout the whole season, we haven't really relied on one person to carry us," Pirie said. "The whole team can play. If one person has an off day, somebody else steps up. That's how we play and we love it. It's fun to play that way."

Pirie was the lone Middletown South starter not recognized by the Shore Conference Class A North coaches as an All-Division player and Anderson pointed the slight as a source of motivation for his first two state tournament performances.

"Pirie is the man on a mission," Anderson said. "I think he felt a little slighted and he is playing with something to prove. He came out and had 22 in the first half the other night and got off to a great start tonight too."

"I'm not that mad about it," Pirie said. "I felt like did deserve at least a mention, but at this point, I'm just playing for my team."

Middletown South is 12 years removed from its last NJSIAA sectional title, which came in Central Jersey Group III to cap the 2007-08 season. With a win Saturday over South Brunswick - the runner-up in the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament - the Eagles will soar to their first sectional final since winning that championship.

With a humbling, 57-55, loss to Mater Dei at the buzzer denying them a chance at a Shore Conference Tournament title, the five prominent Middletown South seniors - Anderson, Dabas, Pirie, Sheridan and sixth-man Richie Boyko - are looking to make the most of their last tournament run together.

"It's not exactly what we wanted but this is the way is has to be and we're embracing it," Anderson said. "We gave them a lot of examples of teams that have lost in a conference tournament and gone on to do well in states and even in the NCAA Tournament. We're fortunate enough to still have a chance to win something in this tournament instead of having to clear the locker room."

"We got angry," Pirie said. "That (Mater Dei) loss hurt. Now, we want to trail-blaze and just win."

 

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