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MARLBORO - With the Marlboro press intensifying and most of its free throws clanging off the rim, the Ranney boys basketball team had to find a way to put away the No. 3 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 on the road.

The No. 2 ranked Panthers kept their cool amid the missed free throws and chaos rendered by the Mustangs and continued to build on a season that has (to this points) been without a loss and - more importantly - a program shutdown.

Sophomore newcomer Isaac Hester continued his game-changing play with 22 points and nine rebounds, junior Elijah Perkins added two dunks to his highlight reel in a 15-point game and junior Ryan Zan scored six of his 13 points in the final 2:30 to lead Ranney across the finish line, 68-62, at Marlboro on Friday afternoon.

PHOTO GALLERY: Ranney at Marlboro by Ray Richardson

Ranney sophomore Isaac Hester drives on Marlboro senior Nick Malucelli. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

The return of the entire roster, plus the addition of Hester - a Gill St. Bernard transfer - made Ranney a dangerous team to begin with and now that so many teams around the Shore Conference (24 boys varsity teams through Friday) have endured at least one team shutdown, Ranney has had the advantage of staying together since the first day of practice on Jan. 11.

"Having everyone come back is huge," Zan said. "We're all able to handle pressure from everyone wanting to beat us and block out everything around us. It makes it a lot easier with basically the same group."

"We treat practice like games," Hester said. "We have 12 guys who can really play so we can press and all that at practice, so in end-of-the-game situations, we're pretty good at that. There are some things we can do better, but I'm happy we came out with the win."

Ranney (6-0) led by as many as 16 points Friday and held that 55-39 lead with a little more than a minute to go in the third quarter before Marlboro (2-2) made its move. Junior Jack Seidler scored the first six points of the fourth quarter on a three-pointer and a three-point play to make it 55-47, then answered a floater by Ranney senior Kyle Rhoden with one of his own to make it 57-49.

Junior Jon Spatola then drilled a three-pointer in transition to cut the Ranney lead to 57-52, but Ranney stretched the lead back to nine on floaters by Perkins and Hester.

Ranney got past the three-minute mark with a nine-point lead but a foul on Rhoden plus an ensuing technical foul on the 6-foot-10 senior not only gave Spatola four free throws but also fouled Rhoden out of the game with 2:41 left. Spatola hit both ends of the 1-and-1, both technical free throws and finally a fadeaway jumper on the ensuing Marlboro possession to complete a six-point trip that chopped the Ranney lead down to 61-58.

"This was a great win," Perkins said. "It was a great competition, a great game overall. It just shows us that everybody is going to give us their best shot every single time. We've got to be ready for four quarters."

Ranney shot a horrid 5-for-23 from the free-throw line on Friday and missed 10 in a row during the fourth quarter, but while the Panthers failed to ice the game on the line, they successfully finished it off by protecting the ball and scoring. Zan finished off a long possession with a driving two-handed dunk to push the lead back to 63-60 and after Seidler hit another shot in the lane to trim the Marlboro deficit back to 63-60, Zan again finished a reverse off a feed from Hester.

Two missed free throws and a layup by Spatola again cut the Ranney lead to three with 22 seconds left but Zan again threw down a dunk off a pass from junior Brandon Klatsky after the Panthers again broke the Marlboro press. Hester capped the game by hitting the second of his two free throws with four seconds left, ending Ranney's streak of 10 straight misses.

After Seidler converted a three-point play off a stolen inbound pass early in the fourth quarter to cut Ranney's lead to 55-47, Ranney turned the ball over just twice the rest of the way while fighting off Marlboro's rally. Not only did Hester and Perkins handle the pressure but Zan showed his ability to put the ball on the floor as well.

"I think I can play the three pretty well," Zan said. "I can bring it up court, make threes, make the right passes and I think it helps the team to be able to do that."

Zan is part of Ranney's imposing front line, which was again on display Friday. Rhoden finished with nine points, seven rebounds and two blocks before fouling out and defended both Seidler (6-6) and Spatola (5-8) at different points in the game. Juniors Charles Anyichie, and T.J. Brasswell, as well as sophomore Zack Davis, also combined for nine points and were disruptive in the paint on defense.

"We can all handle the ball so we can all blend in and play everywhere," Zan said. "We can all run the floor easy well and get easy baskets."

"It really helps when we have guys that length who can block shots and do a lot of different things," Hester said. "It makes our jobs easier (as guards)."

Rhoden and Zan also each assisted one of Perkins's two dunks, the second of which was a thunderous one-handed finish in traffic off a feed from Zan. Perkins also dished out three assists for Ranney.

Hester, meanwhile, has been a force for Ranney in 2021. He leads the team in scoring at 18.2 points per game while shooting 53 percent from the field, providing a complementary scorer and ball-handler to Perkins - who was a Shore Sports Network Second-Team All-Shore selection as a sophomore and is putting up 15.2 points per game through six games.

"It's been great," Hester said. "I'm home now. I've lived in Ocean (Township) before so it's great to be back and I'm happy to be playing basketball again. With COVID and everything, I'm just grateful to play."

Seidler finished with a game-high 26 points and Spatola pumped in 19 to lead Marlboro. Seidler went off for 17 points in the second half, with Spatola pouring in 13 after the break.

Marlboro's two losses have come to opponents ranked among the Top 20 in the state, with the Mustangs opening with a 63-49 loss to St. Peter's Prep in which they took a one-point lead into the fourth quarter. On Monday, Marlboro fell into a 10-point first-quarter hole vs. Colonia and rallied to pick up their second win - the first coming Saturday over Howell.

Ranney, meanwhile, is now perfect through six games and all six wins have come over teams ranked in the Shore Sports Network Top 10: No. 6 Neptune (twice), No. 9 Wall (twice), No. 4 Christian Brothers Academy and now No. 3 Marlboro. The Panthers had two games against No. 1 Manasquan canceled and neither have been rescheduled to this point.

"Because of our reputation, everyone is going to give us their best shot," Perkins said. "It's just staying ready and being ready to get punched in the face and punching right back."

Ranney senior Kyle Rhoden (right) blocks a shot. (Photo by Ray Richardson)
Ranney junior Elijah Perkins throws down one of his two dunks. (Photo by Ray Richardson)
Marlboro junior Jack Seidler guarded by Ranney senior Kyle Rhoden. (Photo by Ray Richardson)