Boys Basketball – Shore Conference Tournament Championship Preview
Shore Conference Tournament Championship
Saturday, Feb. 24, 8 p.m.
At OceanFirst Bank Center, Monmouth University
No. 1 Ranney vs. No. 2 Mater Dei Prep
Admission: $10; Tickets go on sale at 3:30 p.m. at the OceanFirst Bank Center
Ranney (23-4, 14-0 in Class B Central)
Head Coach: Tahj Holden, third season
Prior SCT Final Appearances: None
SCT Championships: None
Road to the Final: Defeated No. 16 Barnegat, 77-44; No. 8 Toms River North, 76-52; No. 5 CBA, 69-53
Off the Bench
Mater Dei Prep (21-4, 12-2 in Class B Central)
Head Coach: Ben Gamble, third season
Prior SCT Final Appearances: 3 (1984, 2016, 2017)
SCT Championships: 2 (2016, 2017)
Road to the Final: Defeated No. 18 Ocean, 51-47; No. 7 Manasquan, 46-43; No. 3 Rumson-Fair Haven, 70-53
Off the Bench
For the first time in six years, two teams from the same division will meet in the Shore Conference Tournament championship game in boys basketball and it will be a championship game seemingly two years in the making. Mater Dei and Ranney were the top two seeds in last year’s tournament, but Marlboro picked off Ranney in the semifinals to put the championship showdown on hold for another year.
This is not, however, the first time the two programs are meeting in the SCT since each burst onto the statewide radar three years ago.
Ben Gamble took over the Mater Dei job and brought with him several key players from now-defunct Cardinal McCarrick, as well as transfers from three other schools who wanted to play for the former player and assistant under Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley at St. Anthony in Jersey City.
Even before Gamble was hired at Mater Dei, the buzz for Ranney’s incoming class of freshmen in 2015-16 had already begun. The quartet of Bryan Antoine, Scottie Lewis, Alex Klatsky and Chris Autino joined the program the same year former Red Bank Regional star and University of Maryland standout Tahj Holden took over as head coach. The newly-formed super-team did not disappoint in year one - the Panthers went 22-4 while starting four freshmen, shattering any and all school records in the process.
One thing the "Fab Four" and Holden could not do in that first year was beat Mater Dei’s overhauled squad. The Seraphs beat Ranney twice during the regular season and the two met again in the quarterfinals of the Shore Conference Tournament, where Mater Dei beat its rival for the third time en route to the program’s first ever SCT title.
Last year, Ranney ramped the rivalry up by splitting the regular-season series with the Seraphs and although they did not make it to the finals to keep Mater Dei from winning its second straight conference championship, the Panthers ended the season by giving a powerhouse Patrick School game a battle in what was eventually a 10-point loss to the eventual Tournament of Champions winner.
This season, the pendulum has swung all the way in Ranney’s favor. The Panthers have already defeated Mater Dei twice this season and will have a chance to make it three straight over their nemesis at Monmouth on Saturday night.
While division opponents have played one another in the SCT final before, it is hard to imagine any of them as familiar with one another as these two programs are. Not only are the two teams preparing for their eighth meeting in three years – which could be nine if the seeds hold true in the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B bracket this coming week – but five players on the floor Saturday night will have been a part of each year of the rivalry.
As previously mentioned, Antoine, Lewis, Klatsky and Autino entered Ranney together as freshmen and have been a part of every game of the rivalry to date. On the Mater Dei side, senior point guard Kenny Jones is the only player remaining from that 2015-16 team and he missed the first Ranney game of that season while sitting 30 days to meet transfer rule requirements.
Even with a familiar list of lead characters, a lot has changed in the matchup – not only since 2016 but since the first meeting of this season between the teams back on Jan. 11. Mater Dei played that game – a 59-45 Ranney win in Tinton Falls – without 6-foot-6 sophomore Jamir Watkins, who was also waiting out his 30 days to become eligible after transferring from Trenton Catholic. Watkins was quiet in the second game on Feb. 5, but has enjoyed a big Shore Conference Tournament – including a 20-point game in the semifinal win over Rumson-Fair Haven on Thursday.
Mater Dei was also without the services of Jones (illness) and senior center Adam Afifi (shoulder) for the first two rounds of the SCT, which forced players to shift roles and play more in their absence. Watkins jumped into the starting lineup, senior Yasin Pretlow and junior Alexander Rice handled the ball more, and senior Kyle Devaney, sophomore Isiah Alston and freshman Jalen Jones all had to step in and play bigger minutes.
Now that Jones and Afifi are back after playing managed minutes on Thursday, the Seraphs have a much deeper selection of players for Gamble to rotate into the game.
On the Ranney side, there is no major change to the roster from either of the first two games this season, but the Panthers now have a six-man rotation that has been completely healthy for nearly three weeks. The last time the teams met, Lewis was less than three weeks removed from an ankle injury and Klatsky was playing for the first time since injuring his ankle. The Seraphs held Lewis to 14 points in the second game after he put up 23 in the first meeting.
Advantages for Ranney
Talent: From a historical perspective, Mater Dei has roster that stacks up with a lot of Shore Conference Tournament champions of years past, but few teams can match up with Ranney on paper. Lewis and Antoine are two of the most gifted talents in the country, while 6-9 senior Savior Akuwovo is a Division I player (Howard) who presented Mater Dei with major problems in both meetings, both on offense and defense. Juniors Ahmadu Sarnor is also a Division I prospect and Klatsky has the shooting ability to wreck a game and the athleticism to impact the defensive end as well.
Cohesiveness: This group plays together year-round and with the exception of Akuwovo, the entire group played in big games together last year as well. For Antoine, Lewis, Klatsky and Autino, that is more than 75 games combined in high school alone, about two thirds of which included Sarnor as well. It shows in the way they share the ball, particularly in transition.
In-Game I.Q.: This is not to say that Ranney has an advantage in basketball intelligence over Mater Dei, but rather to acknowledge the ability of coach Tahj Holden and his team to work around some of the problems that come up during the course of the game. The Panthers are an excellent man-to-man team on defense, but with only six players in the rotation, they have to pick their spots to keep guys fresh and, more importantly, avoid foul trouble. A game like this puts the Panthers to the test because it’s hard to pick one’s spots in a high-level game like this, but they have managed to do so on several occasions already this year. With its ability to strike quickly, Ranney can afford to play a soft zone for brief stretches if fouls become an issue. That is where those 10-0 and 16-2 runs come in handy.
Crunch-time Pedigree: It’s hard to give the team playing against the two-time defending champions the edge in crunch-time, but the Panthers have shown a knack for delivering in the clutch on the few opportunities they have had to do so. Even in losing to Marlboro last year, Antoine hit a pair of big shots before the Mustangs go the last laugh. Antoine also hit two huge baskets in the final 1:30 of the second win over Mater Dei this year and even hit a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to win the team’s final game at the City of Palms Classic in December. While it would probably prefer to be up by a few scores in the final minute, Ranney can rest east knowing it has Antoine on its side if the game comes down to one offensive possession.
Advantages for Mater Dei
Depth: Two weeks ago, this would not have been an advantage for the Seraphs and it’s possible it still won’t be enough. Devaney, Alston and Jones have given Gamble quality minutes during the SCT and handled themselves well against three very tough teams, but this will be a new challenge. It remains to be seen whether or not they are ready for a step up to a new level, but if the seventh through ninth players on the roster can handle themselves for a quick stint here and there, it will give the Seraphs a fresh five heading into the final minutes – which has been a huge advantage for them in each of their two title runs.
Big-Stage Experience: There always something to be said for experience and while Ranney’s team has played on big stages in front of major Division I coaches, playing for a high school championship in front of 4,000 people might be a little jarring to some extent. Antoine and Lewis have grown accustomed to the spotlight, but Mater Dei’s entire team has been on this floor, in this setting and in a close game (in Jones’s case, two close games). Senior Kyle Cardaci was the hero last year when he caught fire late in the third quarter and closed out the Seraphs’ 54-41 win over Marlboro in last year’s final with a team-high 14 points. The Ranney players are certainly capable of it, but Mater Dei has the edge having already done it.
Mater Dei’s Shooters: One of Ranney’s vulnerabilities in the last three years is that it does have a tendency to concede some open looks from the perimeter and Mater Dei is coming off a 10-for-16 performance from beyond the three-point arc against Rumson. Ranney’s defense is tailored to create turnovers and turn rebounds into a fastbreaks, which can leave some three-point opportunities available. With Cardaci and Pretlow being steady shooters for most of the year and Rice, Jones and Watkins all posing the threat of catching fire from the outside. The Seraphs looked like they finally started to find the open spots in the second game between the teams, when they hit 10 threes as a team.
Ranney’s Shooters: This one is geared specifically toward Antoine, who has not found his stroke shooting the ball in either of Ranney’s last two games. Almost all of his damage in the quarterfinal win over Toms River North came in the paint and all five of his field goals against CBA came on dunks and layups. Lewis also abandoned his outside shot early against CBA and scored all 11 of his field goals in the paint, with Klatsky accounting for all four of Ranney’s three-pointers. On the flip side, the same could be said for Mater Dei’s shooting heading into the semifinals, which is a reminder that shooting woes can turn around at any time, particularly for a talent like Antoine.
The Chip: Mater Dei showed Thursday that it likes to be doubted. After two close games, some injury issues and a lot of people on the outside beginning to wonder if the Seraphs had enough left to get to the final, they turned in one of their better performances of the year on both ends. After losing to Ranney by 14 the first time and trailing by nine early in the fourth quarter in the second meeting, Mater Dei showed the fighting spirit that made them two-time champions by taking the lead on Ranney late in the fourth quarter. Ranney may have the more talented starting five, but it’s hard to even picture Mater Dei letting this game get out of hand. Throw in the chance to become the first program since CBA from 1993 to 1996 and just the second team ever to win more than two consecutive titles and the Seraphs will have every reason to leave it all on the floor on Saturday night.
Savior Akuwovo – Even if Ranney has to work around a mediocre shooting performance, it can manage as long as Akuwovo can pick up some easy baskets on putbacks and passes off penetration by the guards. His defense around the rim is also crucial because Mater Dei will no doubt attack the rim after having so much success doing so against Rumson.
Alexander Rice – While he has been superb on the defensive end, Rice has had a quiet tournament scoring the ball. He has, however, come up with some big plays and on Saturday night, he will be playing on the same floor on which his father, Monmouth University head coach King Rice, makes his living. Rice also led the Seraphs in scoring in the first loss to Ranney and was a Ranney killer as a sophomore for St. Anthony last year, when he hit the game-winning shot and scored 24 points in a 51-48 Friars win over the Panthers. If you are looking for a narrative, Rice turning in a big fourth quarter to carry Mater Dei to its third straight title would be tough to top.
Mater Dei showed on Thursday why you should doubt the Seraphs at your own peril. Even though Ranney is an overwhelmingly talented team, Mater Dei showed the last time the two rivals met that is has what it takes to beat them. Now, with a title on the line and the Seraphs riding high off an impressive win over a surging Rumson team, the confidence is back for the two-time defending champions.
On paper, Ranney is the better team and if the two teams do wind up playing four times this year, the most likely scenario is that the Panthers win at least three of them with a great chance to win all four. If there is a chance for the Seraphs to get a win over Ranney this year, Saturday looks like the best opportunity to do so.
I keep coming back to Antoine, though. He has hit so many big shots and played so many big games in his still-young career and this is just another high-level game for a player who was built for them. Lewis has owned this tournament so far and will certainly have his moments Saturday, as will a number of players on both teams. But after some of Antoine’s shooting struggles in the last few games and with a championship trophy in the building, everything says this is the night he snaps out of it and steals the show. The Pick: Ranney, 64-56
Semifinal Picks Record: 1-1
SCT Picks Record: 20-5
Readers' Semifinal Record: 1-1
Readers' SCT Record: 20-5