RED BANK -- The Red Bank Regional boys basketball team earned its current No. 4 ranking in the Shore Sports Network Shore 16 by proving itself against other ranked teams. The Bucs' first four games all came against ranked opponents and a 3-1 start sent the climbing up the ranks.

After two wins over unranked teams in the first two rounds of the Albert E. Martin Buc Classic, the Bucs had to beat one more ranked team in order to win their first Classic since 2014. That ranked team also happened to be one of the last two undefeated teams left in the Shore Conference heading into Saturday.

Ranney had the Bucs on their toes for all 32 minutes of Saturday's championship game at Red Bank Regional, but junior guard Zayier Dean scored 23 points points to go with 12 rebounds, five assists and three blocks to lead the hosts to a thrilling, 63-57 win over the No. 10 Panthers.

Red Bank started its evening with a 16-7 lead with two minutes left in the first quarter. Dean's strong day began with seven points, three rebounds and a block within the run.

"Special players make special plays," Red Bank coach George Sourlis said of Dean. "He makes the team better all-around and having someone like that is special. He truly sees the court better than most and it's been showing so far."

The first quarter ended with the Bucs defending strong and controlling the tempo of the game. Dean found Braydon Kirkpatrick, who ended with 19 points, who faked out the defender and draining the three-pointer to end the quarter with the Bucs leading, 24-10.

"We called this game a program game," Dean said. "We had to do all the little things. Everybody needed to go out there and play their best to get the win."

As the second quarter unfolded, it was a different story. Ranney didn't get its first bucket until the 4:09 mark in the quarter, but carried out the remainder of the half with gritty defense and strong ball movement. A 24-10 Ranney deficit turned into a one-point lead for Red Bank, with the Bucs going scoreless for the entire second quarter.

"You know by no means are we ready to compete for the Shore Conference Tournament," Sourlis said. "We had way too many turnovers. I would've liked for us to clean some things up, but it's alright. We have a month to get in shape."

What was once a 14-point lead for Red Bank turned into a Ranney lead and a brand new game. Sophomore Shaan Nayar came up clutch for the Panthers, draining a three-pointer and giving Ranney its first lead at 29-26. Ranney's Drew Buck followed up with a three of his own to extend the lead to six, forcing Red Bank to call a timeout.

"The message was the same throughout the entire game," Sourlis said. "We need to stay together, fight together and be in this thing together. This wasn't a game we had chalked up in the win column. We knew it was going to take our best game and down the stretch is when we were able to play our best."

Red Bank was able to chip away before showing flashes of what came along in the first quarter. The Bucs were able to get it to a 35-33 game before Dean came up clutch once again. After drawing the clear-path foul, Dean made both free throws and the game was once again tied at 35.

"We had to keep building each other up," Dean said. "I made a couple mistakes but I just knew I had to put my head down and my teammates were there to build me up. I think that's such a big thing. They give me all the confidence to go out and score the ball."

A three-pointer by Dean gave the Bucs back the lead and the momentum carried the Bucs on an 11-4 run to cap off the third. Jameson Ackerman hit a huge three-pointer, which was followed by a strong take to the basket by Anthony Moore, leading to an and-one. Eight minutes is all that separated the Bucs from their first Albert E. Martin Buc Classic title in nine years.

Ranney score five straight from Drew Buck and MeSean Williams to start the fourth, but Kirkpatrick slowed the Panther momentum with a strong take to the basket, which got him to the line as well.

This didn't stop Ranney from looking ahead to potentially stealing the title away from Red Bank. A Drew Buck scoop-and-score saw the Panthers quickly go on a 6-0 run to retake the lead at 50-48.

Dean, as he did all game, had an immediate answer. Dazzling to the basket, he was able to lay it in and tie the game. Seconds after, Dean came up with a clutch steal, which led to a three-pointer.

Ranney struck next in the back-and-forth, with Williams feeding Buck to drain a three-pointer and tie the game once more.

Liam Stack made a crucial play down the stretch for Red Bank, scoring on a tough layup to reclaim the lead. As he did all game, Kirkpatrick made a big play, converting an and-one to extend the Red Bank lead to 58-53 with 1:03 to play.

Kirkpatrick found himself at the line for Red Bank, making one of two before Ranney was able to score quickly to bring the lead down to 59-55.

Two more sets of free throws were all she wrote, and Red Bank raised the Buc Classic championship trophy for the first time since 2014.

"It means a lot for this community," Sourlis said. "You know, nine years is a long time. Now, being able to have a piece of history hanging up, it's special. This is one to remember for quite some time."

Zayier Dean Named MVP of Buc Classic- 23 Points, 12 Rebounds (Photo by John Carelli)
Zayier Dean Named MVP of Buc Classic- 23 Points, 12 Rebounds (Photo by John Carelli)

Dean was named the MVP of the Buc Classic after his explosive performance against Ranney, which followed 15 points against Port Richmond Thursday to advance the Bucs into the final.

Red Bank will enter 2024 with a 6-1 record and fresh off a tournament title. While the Bucs were primed to make noise across the conference, the success has come quickly. With a leader in Dean and strong complimentary pieces like Kirkpatrick, Red Bank is set to see continued success as the season continues to unfold.

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