HOLMDEL - The Manasquan girls basketball team made it all the way to the 2016 NJSIAA Tournament of Champions while playing with a chip on its shoulder. For the first 17 games of this season, the Warriors showed they could play the role of favorite as well as they played the role of underdog, winning all 17 games – most by convincing margins of victory.

The bad news for Manasquan is that its pursuit of a perfect season and its reign as the top-ranked team in N.J. came to an end Sunday at the hands of Rutgers Prep at Holmdel High School as the final game of the Coaches’ Challenge USA N.J./N.Y.

The good news is now the chip is back.

Immediately after falling to the Argonauts, 62-54, for their first loss of the season, the Warriors turned their attention to bouncing back and beginning their pursuit for glory in the Shore Conference and NJSIAA Tournament. Should the Warriors successfully defend their Group II championship and reach the Tournament of Champions again, a rematch with Rutgers Prep could potentially be in the works.

“I think we’re a team that likes to be the underdog,” Manasquan coach Lisa Kukoda said. “We like when people underestimate us. We have players who have dealt with that during their entire playing career. This year, I think there have been more emotions to manage and realizing that every other team is out to get you. We have to be able to embrace that and bring our best game against everybody.”

First on Manasquan’s to-do list following Sunday’s loss is to figure out a way to stop a team that has size and knows how to use it, like Rutgers Prep demonstrated in its win over the Warriors. The Argonauts lost junior point guard Jahsyni Knight to a left-knee injury five minutes into the game and adjusted by throwing even more size onto the floor along its four other six-foot players.

“I think (Rutgers Prep is) just a very well-balanced team,” Kukoda said. “They battle underneath and we need to figure out a way to battle back, or to do a better job of it.”

Manasquan’s three top scorers – junior Dara Mabrey, sophomore Faith Masonius and senior Stella Clark – all reached double-figure scoring, but all found plenty of resistance from Rutgers Prep’s defense. Mabrey finished with 16 points on 3-for-12 shooting from the field, Clark finished with 12 points and Masonius scored 11 of her 15 points in the fourth quarter – including six in the final 1:38.

Suffering a loss leaves Manasquan in position to play with something to prove the rest of the way instead of protecting an unbeaten record against motivated opponents. It’s a role that served Manasquan well last year during its run to the Tournament of Champions final, a run the Warriors made one year after graduating McDonald’s All-American and current Notre Dame sophomore Marina Mabrey.

Before hitting the postseason, Manasquan will look to wrap up a Shore Conference Class B North championship and will play two high-profile games outside the division against Rumson-Fair Haven and St. Rose on consecutive Saturdays.

“Obviously we’re upset because we didn’t play as well as we should have and that resulted in a loss,” Kukoda said. “It’s not the end of the world and we’ll continue to learn from it. Hopefully, it ends up being a good thing for us in the long run. Hopefully, it will motivate us a little bit.”


Caseys Regain Footing After Manasquan Heartbreaker

If any team appears to have a blueprint for bouncing back from tough losses, it is Red Bank Catholic. The Caseys have lost just twice this season and both were to Manasquan in tight games.

The more recent of the two losses was as tight as a game gets. Manasquan sophomore Lola Mullaney hit a shot that danced around the rim and dropped in as the final buzzer sounded to deny the Caseys a huge road win by a 44-42 score.

Since the loss to the Warriors, Red Bank Catholic has regrouped with two straight wins, including Sunday’s convincing 49-31 win over Gill St. Bernard’s in the Coaches’ Challenge USA showcase at Holmdel.

“The one thing I’ve been really pleased with is in past years, we’ve had to come out and try to match other teams’ intensity,” Red Bank Catholic coach Joe Montano said. “This year, we’re making other teams match our intensity. I think that’s one of the big reasons we’ve had some success this year, even in the two Manasquan games that we lost. I thought our energy was very good.”

RBC has been a team with many different heroes over the course of the season. Sunday’s standout was senior Katie Rice, who had 16 points, nine rebounds and three steals to lead the Caseys. Junior Hayley Moore also chipped in 13 points, senior Maureen Coakley posted nine points and five rebounds, and junior Rose Caverly also pitched in six rebounds and five assists to go with her three points.

The Caseys got by Sunday despite leading scorer Josie Larkins scoring just three points on one three-pointer.

“When you look at this group, they all balance each other out,” Montano said. “Josie’s an exceptional offensive player. (Senior) Tia (Montagne) could be as good as anybody I’ve ever coached playing the basketball. She’s good for about 12-to-15 points just guarding. (Coakley) does the little things that people don’t realize – the things you need players to do to win games. As a group, they’ve done things together that really complement each other.”

Now 14-2, Red Bank Catholic is hoping to turn in its best postseason performance since winning the Shore Conference Tournament in 2013 and perhaps even topping it by challenging for the program’s first Tournament of Champions title since 2000. RBC has already demonstrated it can beat perennial Non-Public A and Shore power St. John Vianney, which the Caseys beat on Jan. 23.

“You’re never satisfied with losing, but when you try to look at what kind of effort your kids give you and how well they played as a group, you have to be happy with what they’ve done,” Montano said. “You just hope at this point that our confidence continues to grow.”

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