Boys Basketball – Ranney Goes Back to Work in First Tournament of Champions Appearance
NJSIAA Tournament of Champions Semifinals
Friday, March 15, 7 p.m.
At RWJ Barnabas Health Arena, Toms River
No. 1 Ranney (29-3) vs. No. 5 Moorestown (28-5)
There are only four teams left playing in the 2018-19 high school boys basketball season in New Jersey and yet, for at least one of those teams – the final four is always makes for a potential trap game.
In recent years, winning the NJSIAA Non-Public B championship has been harder than winning two games within the Tournament of Champions, which conclude with three more games - Friday’s semifinals and Sunday’s championship game at Rutgers.
This year, Ranney had to go through Wildwood Catholic and Roselle Catholic – the Nos. 3 and 5 teams in the state, respectively – to capture the Non-Public B championship and did so by surviving two grueling, defensive-minded efforts. It took overtime to dispatch Wildwood Catholic on March 7 and the Panthers punched their ticket to the T of C for the first time ever by dethroning defending champion Roselle Catholic on Saturday night in Toms River.
If any team should be overly-cautious about taking anything for granted over the season’s final three days, it is this particular Ranney team in this particular scenario. Only one other Shore Conference team has ever been to the T of C championship game and the last one to make it as far as Ranney already has was Raritan back in 2004. No team from the Shore has ever won the Tournament of Champions crown.
After earning a bye and five days to rest and re-focus, Ranney will resume its pursuit of New Jersey’s ultimate prize Friday against a Moorestown squad that was not ranked in the NJ.com Top 20 prior to this week. In their last two games, however, the Quakers have commanded the attention of the rest of the state and certainly their next opponent with a resounding win over Ramapo in the Group III final and a 60-59 win over Haddonfield in the T of C quarterfinals on Wednesday. Haddonfield entered the game 31-1 and on a 21-game winning streak.
With a return trip to the Non-Public B final and a shot at Roselle Catholic one game away, Ranney almost let its championship opportunity slip away against Wildwood Catholic. The Panthers trailed by four with a little more than two minutes to go, rallied to force the game into overtime and won it despite McDonald’s All-American Scottie Lewis spending the final 3:18 on the bench after fouling out.
With a new lease on life, Ranney turned in a stellar defensive effort against a banged-up Roselle Catholic team to beat the Lions, 56-50, and become the Shore Conference’s first T of C qualifier in six years.
Ranney’s senior core of Lewis, fellow McDonald’s All-American Bryan Antoine, Ahmadu Sarnor, Alex Klatsky and Chris Autino experienced their first real near-letdown performance since the five were sophomore starters in 2016-17. One game away from their first ever Shore Conference Tournament championship game appearance and a rubber match against rival Mater Dei Prep, the Panthers got off to a slow start in the semifinals and lost in stunning fashion to Marlboro.
Once again, that group of five seniors is one game away from a landmark championship appearance with just one, little-old public-school team standing in its way in a semifinal showdown. It just so happens to be in the same gym that Marlboro beat Ranney two years ago.
Ranney has long since put those demons from sophomore year to bed by returning to Toms River one year later, winning two games in the SCT and eventually winning the entire tournament in convincing fashion. Since that loss to Marlboro, Ranney is 5-1 at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena, with last year’s 63-61 loss to Roselle Catholic serving as the lone blemish.
The loss crept back up in the team’s collective consciousness during the close call with Wildwood Catholic but this time, Ranney escaped despite its uncharacteristically stagnant offensive performance.
On Friday night, the Panthers will attempt to return to their highlight-reel roots while maintaining their recent wizardry on the defensive end. Prior to beating Wildwood Catholic, Ranney buried both Trenton Catholic and Rutgers Prep in big first-quarter holes thanks to hot shooting starts and have not had an offensive quarter that good since.
Moorestown seemed somewhat of a longshot to make past the quarterfinal round of the Tournament of Champions, especially since the Quakers were not ranked prior to Sunday’s Group III Final against Ramapo. So how did Moorestown go from an overlooked team from the South Jersey Group III bracket to one of the final four teams left standing in the entire state?
Like so many roads to championship glory, Moorestown’s started with heartbreak. Last year, Moorestown was three seconds away from celebrating a Central Jersey Group III championship on its home floor, which would have been its first sectional title celebration since 1998. Instead, Nottingham’s Darell Johnson scored just before the buzzer to tie the game and Nottingham prevailed on the road, in overtime.
The Quakers watched as Nottingham made it all the way to the Tournament of Champions semifinals and gave eventual champion Roselle Catholic a serious challenge into the fourth quarter before bowing out. Now, Moorestown finds itself in the exact same position as the team that ended its season last year.
Moorestown dominated its way to the Tournament of Champions with six wins by at least nine points or more before it finally got its chance to break another team’s heart the way Nottingham broke theirs. Haddonfield entered the T of C a two-time Group II champion, 31-1 overall and sporting a 21-game winning streak after beating Camden, Manasquan and Newark West Side in consecutive games. Moorestown led the Bulldawgs all the way and pulled out a nip-and-tuck, 60-59 thriller.
Senior sharpshooter Jagger Zrada shot 7-for-8 from behind the three-point line in the win and while he will likely draw plenty of attention from Ranney on Friday, the Quakers have shown they can thrive with offense coming from several sources. Zrada scored only six points when Wall keyed on him in the Group III semifinals, but Moorestown still rolled to a 64-44 win.
Senior Nick Cartwright-Atkins has been Moorestown's heartbeat throughout the season and is delivering when it counts. Since the South Jersey Group III sectional final vs. Mainland, the 6-2 senior is averaging 15.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists.
Not only will Moorestown feed off its great postseason play for confidence; the Quakers have a common opponent that lends them to believe they can take down Ranney. Wildwood Catholic barely escaped Moorestown during the regular season, 34-32.
Ranney’s defense has been stellar in the past two games but it remains to be seen how the Panthers will react if a team comes out on fire from the outside, which has not happened during the NJSIAA Tournament. Manasquan shot the ball well early in the Shore Conference Tournament and Ranney responded in beating the Warriors, 70-60.
Moorestown is similar to Manasquan in a lot of ways but two key differences should benefit Ranney: the Quakers are not as big as Manasquan and probably don’t benefit from an up-tempo game as much. Where Moorestown has an advantage relative to Manasquan is in its senior-heavy roster, but that won’t give the Quakers much of an advantage over a Ranney squad that starts four seniors and plays five.
If Moorestown can guard against Ranney’s transition game and also get going from beyond the three-point line, they could put a real scare into the Panthers. More likely, Ranney will try to force the tempo and speed the game up in order to get its offense back into the swing of things after a couple of outings below 60 points.
The five days off should help Ranney, as should the close calls in its past, both recent and distant.
The Pick: Ranney 74, Moorestown 57
Bonus Pick: Bergen Catholic 66, Newark East Side 55 (First semifinal, 5:30 p.m.)