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MIDDLETOWN - The Ranney boys basketball team was a little more than a minute away Thursday at Mater Dei Prep from clinching its third consecutive Shore Conference Class B Central championship - a meaningful accomplishment for a collection of players with large sneakers to fill from a year ago.

Just matching the 2018-19 team in the B Central standings was nice, but that was just on paper. Sophomore Elijah Perkins thought the milestone could use some flair on the court, so he cooked up a highlight worthy of a 2019 Ranney dunk reel to effectively clinch the game and the title.

Perkins capped a 16-point performance with an electrifying, one-handed dunk over a Seraphs defender, which served as the climax of Ranney's 54-43 win over Mater Dei to clinch a fourth straight B Central title - the last three of which are outright championships.

Elijah Perkins elevates for a thunderous dunk in Ranney's win over Mater Dei. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Elijah Perkins elevates for a thunderous dunk in Ranney's win over Mater Dei. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"I feel like we really proved a point to the state and to the Shore," Perkins said. "A lot of people had us ranked low, behind Mater Dei (in the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public A bracket). It really gives us the confidence that we have a chance to go really far."

With Ranney protecting a nine-point lead, Perkins retreated with the ball out beyond the three-point line on the right wing. He beat his defender, took off from the edge of the second right block and unleashed a powerful one-handed slam that would make former teammate Scottie Lewis - a multiple-time slam-dunk champion - proud.

"I was surprised it went in," Perkins said. "I was shocked, and then you know I had to stare him down after it. Something just clicked, he (the defender) stepped up and I just saw I had to dunk it."

"We have some athletic guys who can really get up," Ranney coach Tahj Holden said. "We have been preaching to them to attack the rim aggressively and we knew things like that can happen. A couple times, Elijah got in the lane and as maybe trying to avoid the contact, but he is so strong and physical that he can finish through contact and finish over guys like he did there."

The dunk set off a buzz in the road gym and gave Ranney a 49-38 lead and while Mater Dei got the deficit down to 49-43, there was no coming back from the double-digit deficit with under two minutes to go.

Sophomore Ryan Zan added a one-handed dunk as he was fouled to push the lead back to eight points and junior Kyle Rhoden hit two free throws after an offensive rebound to push the lead back to 10.

Rhoden scored 14 points and 11 rebounds, with 10 of his points coming in the second half. Zan, meanwhile, added nine points and seven rebounds and Perkins dished out four assists to go with his game-high point total.

Thursday marked the second time Ranney defeated Mater Dei by a double-figure margin this season and the second meeting was just the third game of the season for Rhoden. The 6-foot-9 transfer from Central Regional sat the first 30 days of the season and missed another two weeks while recovering from foot surgery he underwent in early December.

Rhoden has recorded a double-double in each of his first three games as a Panther and Thursday's was a step up in competition after playing his first two games against Henry Hudson and Asbury Park - the bottom two teams in the Class B Central standings. Rhoden appeared to be experiencing some discomfort in the first half but found his comfort zone after halftime. His last field goal was a two-handed dunk in transition off a pass from Perkins.

"Kyle would probably tell you he had a bad game but I thought he played well," Holden said. "There are still some things he needs to work on, but he's also only been back for two weeks now. I would say he is about 80 percent of what he was before the surgery, so he'll be back after he works himself back into things.

"He is hard on himself and we're hard on him too but the things he does well, he did well today and those things - challenging shots, rebounding, finishing in the paint - really help us out."

Ranney's mix of zone defenses bothered Mater Dei throughout the game, particularly in the first half. The Panthers authored a 22-4 run that turned an 8-7 game into a 30-11 Ranney lead following the second of two first-half three-pointers by sophomore Brandon Klatsky, who finished with seven points.

Mater Dei scored the last five points of the half and extended the run to 9-0 with the first four points of the second half to make it 30-20. Ranney's second-half lead maxed out at 16 and Mater Dei never got closer than the 49-43 deficit in the final minute.

Senior Pete Gorman scored 11 of his team-high 14 points in the second half, senior Tahaj Parland added 13 points, four assists and three steals and senior Sean Turner chipped in 11 points for Mater Dei.

Ranney will head into next week's Shore Conference Tournament both as the two-time defending champion and as the tournament's greatest mystery. The Panthers' lone win outside of Class B Central divisional play is against a 3-17 Middletown North team back in December, but Ranney also has played most of its season without Rhoden and suffered three of its seven losses while playing without 6-6 sophomore Charles Anyichie.

"We have a lot more length now," Perkins said. "We've got Kyle and Charles and Ryan - it's 6-9, 6-7, 6-6, so if someone goes in the paint, it's a hard shot."

"We're still trying to figure out lineups with Kyle back," Holden said. "A lot of guys are used to playing more minutes because we were missing players early in the year, so it's an adjustment to have to play in a new role. We have to get our rotations down and get guys more comfortable in those new roles."

Two wins over Mater Dei are the most noteworthy wins thus far for the Panthers, but their most impressive performance was, arguably, a 66-59 loss to a Roselle Catholic squad currently ranked No. 3 in the state by

"We have a lot more experience," Perkins said. "Playing Wings Academy (N.Y.), Hudson Catholic, Roselle Catholic and all these good teams - even losing to them - everybody is getting better."

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