By Matthew Rocco
Mater Dei Prep’s boys basketball team is plowing through its schedule this season and turning heads in the process.
Since losing to Pope John XXIII Regional High School Jan. 3, the Seraphs strung together 13 wins in a row to cement itself as a top Shore Conference contender this season. Mater Dei’s latest feats of strength came in big wins over St. Joseph Regional High School of Montvale Jan. 31 and division rival Ranney School, and the surging Seraphs will now look to carry their momentum into the Shore Conference Tournament.
Junior Elijah Barnes led the Seraphs with 15 points, including three 3-pointers in the second half, to help Mater Dei rally past St. Joseph, 57-49. Senior NyQuan McCombs contributed 10 points, and sophomore Kenny Jones added nine. Senior Kyle Elliot scored six of his eight points in the fourth quarter, when the Seraphs outscored St. Joseph, 21-12.
Mater Dei head coach Ben Gamble said facing talented opponents like St. Joseph will make the Seraphs a better team for the Shore Conference Tournament, which is slated to begin Feb. 16. He recalled the three-point loss to Pope John early in the season the type of game that needs to be won in the postseason.
“It’s a good test to see where we are at this point in the season. Playing these games will get us ready for tough battles in the playoffs,” Gamble said.
The win Jan. 31 came at an opportune time for Mater Dei (16-1), which is locked in a heated battle for the Shore Conference Class B Central crown. Ranney (16-2), another Shore Conference juggernaut this season, entered its final matchup against the Seraphs Feb. 4 having lost just once to a division opponent, Mater Dei. Meanwhile, the Seraphs were looking to keep their undefeated divisional record intact.
In front of a home crowd, the Seraphs completed the season sweep of Ranney, as McCombs logged 18 points and six assists in a 64-52 victory that clinched no worse than a share of the division title.
Barnes also had a big night, scoring 17 points. Elliot had 15 points, and Elijah Mitchell added 10. For the Panthers, Scottie Lewis led the team with 20 points, while Bryan Antoine put up 17.
Mater Dei, now with a two-game lead in Class B Central, had a divisional game scheduled against St. Rose High School Feb. 9, as well as one vs. Asbury Park High School Feb. 12. The division title is theirs outright with one win.
In his first season as Mater Dei’s head coach, Gamble has guided a comeback year for a program that closed last season with a 10-15 record. The Seraphs have no doubt grabbed the Shore Conference’s attention, thanks in part to their defense. Mater Dei limited Nate Garvey, St. Joseph’s leading scorer, to just 12 points.
“I think our trademark is our defense. There has been only one occasion where we played zone. Our defense has been solid,” Gamble said.
On McCombs, Gamble added, “I think, hands down, he’s the best on-the-ball defender in the Shore Conference.”
Gamble also praised the team’s supporting cast. Mater Dei has a deep roster that recently got even stronger with Jones, junior Maleek McKnight and senior Marvin Pierre joining the team at the end of the 30-day transfer period.
“We can also rotate fresh legs. I think our depth, the kids have bought into it,” Gamble said.
The battle against St. Joseph marked the final game of Mater Dei’s Valerie Fund Basketball Challenge, a five-game showcase at the Pine Belt Arena in Toms River. Christian Brothers Academy defeated East Orange Campus High School, 68-60.
Meanwhile, Mater Dei’s girls team posted a victory over Hudson Catholic Regional High School, 55-45.
Gamble started planning the showcase while he was coaching at Cardinal McCarrick High School in South Amboy. Cardinal McCarrick closed after the last school year. Gamble remained in contact with the schools that committed to playing in the showcase, and they all stayed on board after he arrived at Mater Dei.
The former Saint Anthony High School assistant coach said he would like to make the Valerie Fund Basketball Challenge a regular event on the local basketball schedule.
“Hopefully, this is something that is going to be beneficial for a long time,” Gamble said.
Funds from the event went to the Valerie Fund, which supports children with cancer and blood disorders.