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MANASQUAN - Manasquan junior guard Ben Roy has a lot of basketball attributes and among them is his flair for the dramatic.

For that reason, it was no surprise that the Shore Conference's leading scorer looked to make the shot that clinched Manasquan - the top seed in the Shore Conference Pod A Playoff bracket - a second straight Shore Conference championship Friday night, if only an unofficial one.

As shot after shot of his missed with the game on the line, Roy finally realized it: this story was not supposed to end with him making the game-winning shot and he knew exactly which teammate to look for with the title hanging in the balance.

"I knew that they were all over me, with the clock running down like that" Roy said of the defense of third-seeded Marlboro, Manasquan's championship opponent. "I told Andrew in the huddle, be ready. Be ready to catch that ball."

In the final seconds of an all-time classic game against Marlboro, Roy elevated for a shot near the foul line and instead fired a pass to senior teammate Andrew Solomon for the go-ahead score with 1.4 seconds left. When senior Connor Walsh came down with the ensuing inbound pass off a deflection, Manasquan had finished off an emotional, enthralling, 58-56 overtime win over a Mustangs team that would not go away.

That Solomon scored the final Manasquan points of the season, and to win a championship no less, was more than just fitting: it was fate. Solomon and younger brother Matt - a junior who scored two points off the bench on Friday night - lost their father, Larry, to COVID-19 on Feb. 9. The team rallied around Andrew and Matt in their time of need and on Friday night, Andrew Solomon delivered in his team's time of need.

"This was all for my teammates," Solomon said. "I know what's going on with me and my family but I don't want that to overshadow my teammates and this team. We really deserved this. I thought we played as hard as we could every game this year and really deserved it."

PHOTO GALLERY: Marlboro at Manasquan by Paula Lopez

Photo by Paula Lopez.
Photo by Paula Lopez.

"With everything going on in his life right now, we have been supporting him through those tough times," Roy said. "It's like it was meant to be, him putting that last shot in. It's just remarkable."

It took a confluence of events for Solomon to be in position to score the winning basket, among them Roy's struggle to find his shot in the fourth quarter and overtime and awareness to look elsewhere in the final seconds of the game.

It took a resilient Marlboro team to turn a 10-point halftime deficit into a one-point lead in the blink of an eye, with the Mustangs scoring the first 11 points of the third quarter to turn a game that was on the cusp of being a rout into the classic it eventually became.

It took Marlboro's leading scorer, Jack Seidler - who scored 19 points to go with nine rebounds Friday - to foul out of the game a little more than a minute into overtime. Not only did Seidler foul out to remove a dangerous scorer from the floor for Marlboro, but his last two fouls came on offensive fouls on which he made both shots that came as the whistle blew against him.

Like so many down-to-the-wire games, it took some free-throw-line drama. Marlboro junior guard Jon Spatola - an 80-percent shooter entering the game after going 10-for-10 in Wednesday's win over Ranney - missed the first of two foul shots with 39 seconds left before making the second to put the Mustangs ahead, 56-55.

Manasquan senior Connor Walsh then earned a trip to the line on the other end and his first attempt hit just about every part of the rim before bouncing in for the tying point. Walsh then came up short on the second attempt, but even that worked out for Manasquan, with senior Jack Collins calling a timeout as he dove head-first into the bleachers to save the ball along the sideline.

All of those developments set the Warriors up with the ball, tied 56-56 with Marlboro, with 24.6 seconds left to go. Roy dribbled down the clock, powered to his spot at the free-throw line, drew the defense's attention, and slipped the pass to Solomon for the dramatic winning layup.

"He told me to be ready," Solomon said. "I knew that my defender would go off to help his defender. So I kept my hands out, ready to go. It all just happened."

PHOTO GALLERY: Marlboro at Manasquan by Paula Lopez

Manasquan junior guard Ben Roy. Photo by Paula Lopez)
Manasquan junior guard Ben Roy. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

After a Marlboro timeout, Walsh blocked the attempted inbound pass, came down with it and flung the ball skyward as if to try to send Larry Solomon a souvenir. Down on the ground, the Warriors surrounded Andrew and exchanged embraces with both he and Matt.

Larry Solomon was not the only important person absent from Friday's game due to reasons related to COVID-19. Manasquan head coach Andrew Bilodeau missed his seventh straight game while dealing with a heart issue that began afflicting him a matter of weeks after he tested positive for the coronavirus.

While assistant Ryan Ritchey ran the team and led it to a 7-0 record without his head coach present, Bilodeau has stayed in touch with his players while also staying away, per doctors orders. Even though he was not in the gym Friday, he was on the minds of his players.

"He has prepared us so well for literally our entire lives," Walsh said of Bilodeau. "He has always had us involved in this program, for moments like these. We know what he would say, we know what he would want us to do and we can perform the best that we can. It's terrible that he can't be with us, but I'm so happy we can win this one for him."

"We always say 'Squan on three' coming out of the locker room," Roy said. "Tonight, it was 'A.B. on three' for Andrew Bilodeau. With everything he is going through, this was for him. He led us here, he brought us from freshman year until here tonight."

PHOTO GALLERY: Marlboro at Manasquan by Paula Lopez

Photo by Paula Lopez
Photo by Paula Lopez

"He has been on the phone with us in the locker room, getting jacked up with us after the game," senior guard Casey Mulligan said. "I'm just praying he feels better and gets through whatever he has to get through. It's definitely different without him, but it makes us want to win so much more and want to play for him."

Even amid losing his shooting touch late in the game, Roy still finished with 21 points and also handed out six assists to lead Manasquan. Solomon wound up with eight points and seven rebounds, while Collins (12 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and three blocks) and Walsh (11 points and six rebounds) both made crucial contributions.

Mulligan also came up huge for Manasquan on the defensive end. Not only did he hold Spatola to 16 points - just slightly under his season average - but he also took the charge that drew the fifth foul on Seidler early in overtime. Mulligan has earned a reputation as one of the great charge-takers at the Shore over the past decade.

"He's a great player, quick as (anything)," Mulligan said of Spatola. "He can pull-up from anywhere. He was a real tough matchup for me. I have had tough matchups all year and he is right near the top."

After starting off cold in each of its last two games and trailing in nine of its first 11 games, it appeared Manasquan might finally be on the way to a somewhat comfortable victory. The Warriors led by as many as 14 points in the first half and took a 36-26 lead into the break behind big halves from Roy (13 points) and Collins (seven points, seven rebounds and six assists), who were helping Manasquan get quality looks throughout the final 12 minutes of the first half.

Marlboro, however, had other ideas. Spatola keyed an 11-0 run to open the third, hitting a three-pointer that cut the deficit to five and another jumper to give the Mustangs a 37-36 lead right out of the gate in the second half.

"They definitely weren't going to roll over of give up," Collins said of Marlboro. "We knew we had a size advantage and the length advantage, so we were just trying to battle. Ben was going to the basket, guys were hitting shots and we just wanted to be ready to hit the offensive glass and get some second-chance points, especially once they made their run."

PHOTO GALLERY: Marlboro at Manasquan by Paula Lopez

Manasquan senior Jack Collins. Photo by Paula Lopez)
Manasquan senior Jack Collins. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Manasquan answered with five straight when Roy scored and found Collins for a three-point play, but Seidler came right back with four of his own to even the score at 41. Marlboro then took a 47-43 lead on four unanswered points by junior Jay Ratner (12 points, seven rebounds), who helped keep Marlboro close with eight points in the first half.

Mulligan and Walsh each scored before the end of the quarter to make it 47-all going to the final eight minutes.

"Major props to them," Roy said. "That's a tough team. I definitely underestimated them. I saw they knocked off Ranney but that's a helluva team."

The pace slowed considerably over the final 12 minutes. The teams traded baskets and stops throughout the fourth and overtime, with neither going up by more than two points. Spatola and Roy traded baskets to start the fourth and Walsh and Seidler did so later in the quarter.

Collins gave Manasquan a 53-51 with a runner off the glass before Seidler pulled up for a tying short jumper, which came with under 1:30 to go and one possession after picking up his fourth foul.

Manasquan drained 1:16 off the clock on its final possession, with Roy hoisting up a 28-foot three-point attempt that missed the mark.

With another heart-breaking loss, Marlboro has now seen each of its last two seasons end on shots that beat the Mustangs in the final seconds. Last year, it was a buzzer-beater at home against South Brunswick in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV final that stunned the Mustangs, who were just seconds away from their first ever sectional championship.

This time, it was on the road and against the No. 3-ranked team in N.J., according to NJ Advance Media. The Mustangs were on the brink of pulling it off, even with their leading scorer saddled to the bench, but on his feet cheering for his team, in the final minutes.

"Losing Jack, that hurts," Marlboro coach Mike Nausedas said. "But these guys stepped up: Vinny (Spatola), Zach (Molod), Ryan (Mendez) - the guys stepped up big off the bench today."

"It didn't even register at first because it was an offensive foul. It's huge when you lose one of your best players and best scorers in overtime. It hurts. I don't know what else to say. It really hurts."

Marlboro is set to bring back six of the seven players who got on the floor Friday night next season, with only starting center Nick Malucelli graduating. Just as they did this year, the Mustangs will try to rebound from coming painstakingly close to their first ever postseason championship and are already looking ahead to 2021-22.

"They have a really bad taste in their mouth," Nausedas said of his junior-heavy group. "These guys are going to be great young men in life. Getting knocked down like this two years in a row, it's hard to go in there and tell them that. In the end, they are going to realize how good they really are.

"We will be back."

Instead of the storybook bounceback by Marlboro, it was Manasquan who finished its 2021 masterpiece. The Warriors finished 12-0, clinched the No. 1 ranking at the Shore and a top-five finish in the state for the second straight year.

Last season ended with Manasquan being told it would not be allowed to compete in a state semifinal game against Camden - the No. 1 team in the state - because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. That made for an anticlimactic end to a 31-1 season.

A year later, after losing a chance to finish the season, the Warriors lost the father of two team members and the presence of their head coach to the virus. With so much happening away from the court for the Warriors, the season was about so much more than the perfect record and second straight title.

"We have been through so much as a team," Walsh said. "The passing of Mr. Solomon, the way our season ended last year - so many guys were going through so much. This feels so good. It's terrible that we have nothing after this but fortunate we get to end in a win.

"Without the season, those events would have been so much harder for everyone affected. The season was a great way to get our mind off of everything and such a great way to make some memories with something that only happens once in our lives."

Andrew and Matt Solomon lost more than anyone affiliated with the program and it would be understandable if they questioned if this 2021 basketball season was worth it given the risk and what COVID took from their family.

"Worth it 100 percent, " Solomon said. "For four years, all of these seniors have stayed together through everything. This is a great way to go out. We really deserve this."


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