TOMS RIVER - A handful of the members of this year's Manasquan girls basketball team got a taste of New Jersey's ultimate prize in high school basketball last year and no matter how much this year's team accomplishes, they are hungry for more.

Friday against Rutgers Prep - the No. 2 team in the state and the No. 2 seed in the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions - the third-seeded Warriors played like the defending champions that they are.

Sophomore Dara Mabrey scored a game-high 22 points, including 10 during a pivotal third quarter for Manasquan, and the Warriors topped the Argonauts 59-50 to advance to the T of C final for the third straight year and fourth time in five years.

Manasquan will shoot for its second straight championship and third in five years Monday against top-seeded St. John Vianney at the Sun National Bank Arena in Trenton.

Manasquan sophomore Dara Mabrey scored a game-high 22 points in a win over Rutgers Prep on Friday. (Photo by Ray Richardson)
Manasquan sophomore Dara Mabrey scored a game-high 22 points in a win over Rutgers Prep on Friday. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

"From the beginning, they've expecting to be here," Manasquan coach Lisa Kukoda said. "No matter what anyone else thought, they expecting to be playing for a championship and anything less was going to be a disappointment.

"It's kind of sad because we won a (Group II) championship and one day I took to time to tell them, 'Appreciate what is going on here. You're winning state championships.' But to them, the goal was the TOC finals. That's what motivates them and that's what gives us the edge."

Manasquan is in the championship game again after taking down a one-loss Rutgers Prep team whose only loss came against Blair Academy - which is not an NJSIAA Tournament eligible program. The Warriors grabbed the lead late in the first quarter and never gave it up.

"I love when people don't think we're going to win," junior point guard Stella Clark said. "When people don't expect us to come out and show, that's when we show the most."

The Warriors led 38-31 with 2:26 to go in the third before a 9-2 run closed out the quarter and sent Manasquan to the fourth with a 47-33 lead. Mabrey scored five of the nine points during that spurt and freshman Faith Masonius scored the other four, including short jumper in the final seconds off a pass from sophomore Carly Geissler.

"It's not putting the ball in the basket or offensive things like moving the ball that make the difference," Mabrey said. "It's getting on the ground and taking somebody out and hustling after the ball. It just says a lot because this team has showed that the entire season and it really showed tonight."

Mabrey topped 20 points for the second straight game after her fourth-quarter outburst led Manasquan to a come-from-behind win over University on Wednesday in the T of C quarterfinals. Manasquan trailed 49-42 before closing the game on a 15-0 run.

"Tonight in the huddle, we said there was no playing catch-up," Mabrey said. "The outcome of the game is not going to be what we want it to be if we have to play catch-up against Rutgers Prep. That was a big part of tonight and we used that game as confidence, because once we get a big win, we just want more and more and more."

Masonius finished with nine points and five rebounds while junior sister Addie Masonius added 10 points, five rebounds and three steals for Manasquan. Addie Masonius capped the first quarter by drilling a 23-foot three-pointer with two seconds left to give the Warriors a 12-7 lead after the first eight minutes.

Clark finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists to help pace the Warriors offense. The junior capped the first half by finding Faith Masonius for a layup off a pick-and-roll that gave the Warriors a 27-17 lead heading into the break.

Junior Stella Clark scored 14 points to go with seven rebounds and five assists in Manasquan's win over Rutgers Prep on Friday. (Photo by Ray Richardson)
Junior Stella Clark scored 14 points to go with seven rebounds and five assists in Manasquan's win over Rutgers Prep on Friday. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Rutgers Prep cut the Manasquan lead to 56-50 with 40 seconds left, but could not score the rest of the way. Mabrey also knocked down a pair of free throws to ice the game after Addie Masonius made one of two.

Manasquan overcame a decided disadvantage in size against a Rutgers Prep frontline that boasted 6-foot-3 center and Drexel recruit Niki Metzel (13 points) and 6-foot-2 junior forward Gabi Redden (16 points), as well as size advantages in the backcourt. The Argonauts dominated the early going in the paint by grabbing offensive rebounds and blocking shots, but the Warriors adjusted by the end of the first quarter.

"They had a size advantage, but our coach said before the game that she kind of liked us coming into the game as the underdog because people didn't think we were going to win," Mabrey said. "She told us in the timeouts, 'You have to recognize what you're driving into.' I think we took that into consideration and made the adjustment pretty well."

Manasquan did surrender a 35-28 margin on the glass in Rutgers Prep's favor, but the Warriors made up for it in other areas. They shot 45 percent (19-for-42) from the field to Rutgers Prep's 40.7 (22-for-54). Within that stat, Manasquan shot 5-for-10 from behind the three-point arc while the Argonauts were just 1-for-12.

The Warriors also earned a decided edge on the foul line, shooting 16-for-24 while Rutgers Prep went 5-for-8.

"We knew we needed to play a great game," Kukoda said. "It couldn't just be offensively, it couldn't just be defensively, it had to be everywhere - loose balls, rebounds, extra passes. All of that stuff needed to be perfect for us."

The lone blemish within Manasquan's box score was its 19 turnovers, but the Warriors partially offset those by forcing Rutgers Prep in 15 while outshooting the Argonauts.

"It kind of comes with the way we play," Kukoda said of the turnovers. "It's a high-risk, high-reward style and they know that I live with it to a certain extent, but they also have to grow as individuals and sometimes just make the easy play. We have too many good scorers on the court to give away possessions, so I think if we can put that last piece of the puzzle together, we really have everything we need."

Manasquan will look to solve a St. John Vianney team that beat the Warriors three times in three previous meetings this year, including a 59-48 Lancers win in the Shore Conference Tournament final. The Warriors took their Shore Conference Class A Central rival to overtime in the first meeting, but the senior-laden Lancers have been able to overcome a Manasquan team that does not play any seniors in its regular rotation.

If the Warriors can defeat St. John Vianney, they will become the first team other than their opponents and Malcolm X Shabazz of Newark to win at least three T of C titles. Both Vianney and Shabazz are tied for the current record with six championships.

"There's still a little bit of anger inside of us from those last three times because we know we're capable of coming out with a win against any team," Mabrey said. "St. John Vianney is a really good team and we're really familiar with how they play and they're really familiar with how we play so it's just going to come down to who gives more."

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