Boys Basketball – Shore Summons Defense, Advance to First Sectional Final Since 2015
WEST LONG BRANCH -- The only team standing between the Shore Regional boys basketball and its first trip to the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I championship game in eight years was a team that allowed the Blue Devils to score 80-plus points in a Shore win back in December.
In the NJSIAA Tournament, however, points are at a premium and in Friday's Central Jersey Group I semifinal against third-seeded Point Pleasant Beach, No. 2 Shore failed to crack 50 points. It's experienced team, however, made sure its defense was also ready and that effort defensive end earned the Blue Devils their title shot.
Senior Donovan Hughes delivered a big scoring second half and Shore's defense shut down a normally-high-scoring Point Beach offense in a 48-37 win that secured the Blue Devils a spot in the sectional championship game Monday against top-seeded Eagle Academy of Newark.
Shore has now won six games in a row and 10 of its last 11, but Friday's game was only the second time in the last 11 games that the Blue Devils scored fewer than 40 points and the other was its lone loss in that stretch -- a 50-45 defeat at Toms River North in the Shore Conference Tournament round of 16.
That made defense all-the-more imperative and Shore clamped down from the middle of the first quarter through the remainder of the game. Point Beach orchestrated a 7-0 run to take a 7-2 lead, but Shore held the Garnet Gulls scoreless over the final 4:45 of the opening quarter to get the game tied up heading into the second.
Point Beach took a 12-8 lead on a layup by senior Kyle Kolans early in the second quarter, at which point Shore again put the clamps on Point Beach's offense while the Blue Devils started to warm up. Senior Liam Majewski hit his second three-pointer of the half to cut the deficit to one and Hughes drove for his lone basket of the first half to lift Shore into the lead, 13-12.
After a series of empty possession for both teams, senior Ben Levy then stole the ball and scored to extend the Shore lead to 15-12 and senior Brett Sweeney then delivered three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to stretch the lead to 21-12 and cap a 13-0 run. Point Beach stopped the run on a layup by junior John Coakley with one second left.
Hughes caught fire in the second half, hitting a three and a floater to spark seven unanswered Shore points that made the score 31-17 and after Point Beach clawed to within nine, junior Alex George hit a jumper in the final seconds of the third quarter, sending the Blue Devils to the fourth with a 33-22 lead.
Point Beach scored the first three points of the fourth quarter, but Alex George answered with an and-one off a feed from Levy to push the lead back to 10. The Garnet Gulls did not get within single-digits again until 1:08 left in the game.
The 37 points by Point Beach was the second-lowest total for the Garnet Gulls this season, with Point Beach scoring 36 in an 18-point loss at Colts Neck during the regular season.
Hughes scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half and also dished out three assists to lead Shore, while George added 13 points and three steals. Gajewski also cracked double-figures with 10 points and Sweeney added a second-half bucket to go with his two big first-half threes, leaving him at eight points for the game.
Point Beach senior standout point guard Kevin Burns led the Garnet Gulls with 13 points, nine rebounds and four assists in his final game, while classmate Kyle Kolans went out with a 10-point performance.
In order to finish off its first sectional championship since winning the 2015 Central Group I title, Shore will have to beat Eagle Academy of Newark, which has been calling Weequahic High School's gym home -- including when Eagle beat Keyport, 51-47, in Friday's other semifinal.
The senior class comprises 80 percent of the starting lineup Monday night, with George -- a starter since his freshman season -- the lone non-senior. This group has been building toward this over the last four seasons, with last year's 14-13 finish and and first-round win in the NJSIAA Tournament marking the first time Shore has registered a winning record or won a tournament game since the 2014-15 championship season.
Last year's step forward set the stage for 21 wins in 2022-23 and a shot for the Blue Devils to win a championship if they can make it 22.