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MIDDLETOWN - A double-digit deficit and a fast-paced offense on its game were two major obstacles for the Middletown South boys basketball team to overcome on Monday night, but with a gang of seniors staring that adversity in the face, the Eagles did not flinch.

After trailing Marlboro by as many as 11 in the first half and giving up the lead early in the fourth quarter, Middletown South - the No. 3 team in the Shore Sports Network - took over during the final six minutes and took down the No. 4 Mustangs, 71-65, to move into sole possession of first place in the Shore Conference Class A North division.

It was once again a total team effort by the six regulars in the Middletown South rotation - five of whom are seniors. Senior James Anderson scored a team-high 19 points on his 18th birthday to go with five rebounds and two steals and was a key figure in the 11-0 run that turned Marlboro's four-point advantage with under six minutes to go into a seven-point Eagles lead with under two minutes to go.

Middletown South senior James Anderson. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"We drew back on our state tournament game against Hightstown last year," coach Jim Anderson said, referring to his team's first-round win in last year's NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV Playoffs. "It was a similar type atmosphere and obviously all these guys experienced it.

"The seniors do help. It's so much different coaching seniors. Nothing against when they were juniors but you're talking to a bunch of young men."

With the game tied at 57, Anderson poked the ball away for a steal took it all the way to the rim for the go-ahead basket. He later buried a three from the right wing to extend Middletown South's lead to 64-57.

Senior Bobby Pirie scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half and also grabbed 16 rebounds, while senior Mike Dabas posted 14 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Before Anderson gave Middletown South the lead, Dabas tied the game at 57 by tracking down a rebound and going all the way to the basket for the finish.

Dabas and senior Jack Sheridan were instrumental in swinging the momentum of the game in the first half, which saw Marlboro go up, 33-22, at one point in the second quarter. Sheridan hit three-pointers on consecutive possessions just before Marlboro went on an 8-0 run to take the 11-point lead, then helped swing the momentum by taking a charge against Mustangs leading scorer Alex Ratner.

Anderson followed with a three-pointer and Dabas scored on back-to-back possessions to give the Eagles a 34-33 lead. Pirie added a putback that capped the run at 14-0.

"We didn't go bananas during that timeout down 33-22," Anderson said. "We didn't break everything down. We just talked about playing through it."

Junior Luke Albrecht added nine points and three assists and senior Richie Boyko chipped in six points and five blocked shots off the bench.

Middletown South's defense labored over the first three quarters, during which Marlboro's offense - averaging 81 points per game heading into Monday's game - put up 55 points through three quarters. In the fourth, however, the Eagles clamped down and held the Mustangs to 10 points in the final quarter.

Ratner entered the game averaging 22.9 points and scored 11 in the first half before Middletown South held the senior guard scoreless for the entire second half. Sophomore Jack Seidler and junior Aleksy Friedman led Marlboro with 16 points each while sophomore Jon Spatola poured in 14 in the loss.

"We changed up our looks on defense," Anderson said. "We have a lot of different bodies that we just keep throwing at you. If somebody gets tied, we can just throw Mike Dabas on Ratner or Luke (Albrecht) on Ratner or whoever's turn it is."

Monday marked the second meeting between the two A North rivals and at least one more is on the way. Middletown South topped Marlboro, 72-67, in the WOBM Christmas Classic third-place game on Dec. 30 and will meet again on Feb. 6 during the second turn through the division schedule.

"(Coach) Mike (Nausedas) does a great job with Marlboro," Anderson said. "Obviously, we have a pretty good rivalry in the last three years against those guys. I can't say I'm looking forward to playing them again in three weeks."

As two teams currently entrenched in the top four of the Shore Conference, Marlboro and Middletown South could potentially meet sometime during the Shore Conference Tournament and both occupy the Central Jersey Group IV section in the NJSIAA Tournament, leaving open the possibility that the two teams could meet as many as five times this season.

With its win on Monday, Middletown South ran its winning streak to seven, with its only loss coming at the hands of No. 1 Manasquan in the WOBM semifinals. Last year, Middletown South proved it compete with top programs at the Shore but also suffered its share of head-scratching losses. The Eagles have had no such problem this season, with the two Marlboro wins and an overtime win over Christian Brothers Academy representing the only games the Ealges have won by fewer than 13 points.

"We can't take anybody lightly," Anderson said. "A North teams are still solid. Just look at Howell and the run they gave CBA (on Thursday). If you show up asleep, you are going to get beat. You have to defend all the time and if we do that, we'll be fine."