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OCEAN TWP. -- Over the last calendar year, the Shore Regional boys basketball team has gone from an experienced team that has played together for two years into an experienced team that has played together for three years and learned how to win games.

Thursday's pivotal Shore Conference Class C South game at Ocean Township shaped up to be a game that most teams in Shore's situation would not win, but the Blue Devils found a dramatic way to keep their undefeated start to the season alive.

"This is the first time since I have been here that we have beaten them," said Shore coach Erik Mazur, who took over as head coach in 2017-18 after serving as assistant to predecessor Frank Carmody. "That's something we needed to get off our backs, especially now that this is a division rivalry. This was a really good game, so it's great to win, especially on the road."

Trailing by four with under a minute to go, Shore rallied to beat the Spartans, 43-42, with senior Liam Gajewski closing it out on three free throws with no time remaining on the clock.

Ocean took a 42-38 lead on a floater by sophomore Zayier Dean, who finished with 14 points and scored Ocean's last six of the game to seemingly put the Spartans on the cusp of a win with under a minute to go.

Junior Alex George led Shore with 19 points and hit a floater in the lane to cut the Ocean lead to 42-40 and the Blue Devils got the ball back with 28 seconds when senior Brett Sweeney hit the court for a steal and called timeout.

Shore came up empty with a chance to tie or take the lead and fouled Dean with 5.3 seconds to send him to the line for a one-and-one. Dean missed the front-end and Shore quickly moved the ball up court to Gajewski, who pump-faked a defender into the air and was grabbed on the arm as he shot the ball with time expiring.

"We do a lot of situational stuff in practice and this was similar to what we do in practice pretty regularly: thirty seconds left in the game, down three, four, five points," Mazur said. "We know they have to miss a free throw, but we've done this so we had to settle it down and be ready to execute. Liam did a great job of pump-faking, getting him up in the air and sticking his free throws."

Gajewski then stepped to the line with both teams watching behind him and calmly sank all three free throws to end the game and set off a Blue Devils celebration. Gajewski finished with seven points and classmate Donovan Hughes added nine for Shore.

Ocean closed the first half with six straight points to take a 19-14 halftime lead and led by as many as seven in the third quarter. Shore finally erased its deficit when Sweeney hit a three-pointer from the top of the key to tie the game at 38-38 with 1:45 left.

Dean answered with a layup after fellow sophomore Ron Richardson found him making a backdoor cut, giving Ocean the lead back at 40-38. After a Spartans stop, Dean again struck with a drive into the lane and a short, one-handed shot for a four-point Ocean lead with 56 seconds left.

Richardson led Ocean with 15 points, 14 of which came in the first three quarters.

"It looked like they were trying to go inside more to Richardson because of the size advantage they had," Mazur said. "I probably would have done the same thing, but by doing that, it took the ball out of Dean's hands more than usual, so that was the benefit for us. He is a phenomenal player."

Shore won each of its first six games of the season by a margin of eight points or more and in its last two games, the Blue Devils have overcome suboptimal shooting to win close games. Freehold Boro took Shore to the wire to close out last week, with the Blue Devils prevailing with a 47-43 win.

Shore players mob Liam Majewski (center) after he hit three game-winning free throws Thursday at Ocean. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Shore players mob Liam Majewski (center) after he hit three game-winning free throws Thursday at Ocean. (Photo: Tom Smith |

On Thursday, Shore missed shots in the fourth quarter that appeared to cost the Blue Devils their first loss, but Sweeney's big three and steal, followed by Gajewski's clutch free-throw shooting saved the day.

"That's probably the worst we have shot the ball all season," Mazur said. "We have scored the ball really well, but they are a good basketball team. I thought we did a good job of just hanging in the game enough to give us a chance to win late."

Shore now sits along in first place atop the Class C South standings, one year after it finished 14-13 while taking its lumps in a rugged Class A Central division that included Red Bank Catholic, Rumson-Fair Haven, Raritan and Holmdel. Despite last year's challenging division schedule, Shore finished with a winning record, qualified for the Shore Conference Tournament and won an NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I playoff game -- all with a roster loaded with talent returning for the 2022-23 season.

"This will be a good kick in the backside for us and our confidence," Mazur said. "We have a lot of kids back from a team that played in the A Central, which was a brutal grind for us. We got a lot of good experience with a lot of players coming back and we had a really good summer together. I think what we're seeing so far is all that work coming together and turning into some positive results. It's been good for their confidence and they come to practice every day looking to keep getting better."

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