Elijah Mitchell’s MVP Performance Helps Mater Dei Prep Repeat as SCT Champs
WEST LONG BRANCH - On a team loaded with talent, Mater Dei Prep senior Elijah Mitchell plays a crucial role that is especially magnified in the postseason.
Someone needs to be the player doing the dirty work of defending the opponent's top threat, grabbing rebounds, generating some offense and generally subverting his ego to do whatever is necessary to get a win.
Mitchell played that role in the biggest game of the season on Saturday night at Monmouth University's OceanFirst Bank Center and was rewarded with the Surf Taco Most Valuable Player award for helping the top-seeded Seraphs repeat as Shore Conference Tournament champions with a 54-41 win over a Cinderella Marlboro team making its first SCT final appearance.
"He's a gritty winner,'' head coach Ben Gamble said. "I think he's a college ball player. I'm not saying he's a Division I player, but you have to look at (the fact that) he's been with me three years, he's won over 70 games, and he's probably lost maybe 9-10 games. You can't evaluate winning, and he's a winner."
Mitchell finished with 12 points on 6-for-10 shooting, which all came in the first three quarters, and added three steals as part of a defensive effort that limited the Mustangs to 34.7 percent shooting from the field.
"I come in just to play hard and do everything that we need for our team to win,'' Mitchell said. "If we need rebounds I got it, if we need steals and defense, I got it. Today I just let the game come to me."
"Elijah, he brings the team together because he's able to do everything and help us win games down the stretch,'' said junior guard Kenny Jones.
He helped keep the Seraphs afloat during an ugly first half for both teams that resulted in a 20-20 tie at the break. Mitchell's biggest shot of the game was a jumper at the third-quarter buzzer that gave Mater Dei Prep a 38-34 lead and some momentum going into a fourth quarter. Junior guard Kyle Cardaci, a Holmdel transfer, helped them bring it home by scoring all of his game-high 14 points in the final nine minutes of the game.
"He's a great team player,'' senior forward Elijah Barnes said. "He doesn't care what he has to do. Tonight he stepped up scoring. It was a big job for a senior and it ended well with a championship."
Mitchell was one of multiple defenders who spent time defending standout Marlboro point guard P.J. Ringel, who finished 1-for-12 shooting for two points before fouling out in the loss. Mitchell also helped harass Marlboro's long-range shooters on the wing, and the Mustangs ended up 5-for-20 from 3-point range in the loss.
"P.J. knows how to control the tempo of the game so well, but once we put Yasin (Pretlow) and Elijah on him, it kind of wore him out,'' Barnes said.
Having guarded Manasquan's Devin Jensen, one of the Shore Conference's top scorers, in the SCT quarterfinals, Mitchell was ready when it came to shutting down Marlboro's wing threats. He got the sign that Mater Dei's defense was taking a toll when he looked around in the third quarter.
"I saw the players go down on their knees and slump over,'' he said. "They were getting tired."
Mitchell's two years at Mater Dei Prep have been the best in school history since he arrived with Gamble before last season. He started his career at state power Patrick School, then transferred as a sophomore to Cardinal McCarrick, where Gamble was the head coach. The school closed its doors for good in 2015 due to financial difficulties, resulting in Mitchell and several other teammates following Gamble to Mater Dei Prep, which had just avoided Cardinal McCarrick's fate with a massive fund-raising effort that saved the school.
"It felt weird, but once my coach came here I knew where I could go and be coached well,'' Mitchell said about that transition.
He will leave as part of a senior group that produced more victories in a two-year span than any Mater Dei teams in history, which is the main stat Mitchell is concerned with.
"We'll be in the history books forever,'' Barnes said. "In 20 or 30 years we'll look back and see our names, and it's a great feeling."
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