By Wayne Witkowski
Ben Gamble was concerned about chemistry when he took over Mater Dei Prep’s boys basketball program this season. Now the Seraphs are enjoying their greatest season ever.
After all, the roster included seven players who previously were at three other high schools, and Gamble knew he had to pull it together. But after winning its fire Shore Conference division championship since 2005 in B Central and its first Shore Conference Tournament championship in program history, the hottest team in the state is primed for a run for even greater things.
The Seraphs are riding a 21-game win streak and have a 24-1 record.
The NJSIAA Non-Public, B South tournament started March 1 against Doane Academy and a victory would set up a likely second-round match against Trenton Catholic Academy March 3.
“I think going into states, we’re relaxed. We’re playing with house money — no pressure on us because we had won our division and won the championship that we wanted,” Gamble said. “As the No. 1 seed in the Shore Conference Tournament, everybody expected us to win. Now, we’re seeded No. 6 and nobody expects us to win. Roselle Catholic and St. Patrick’s are favored, maybe Gill St. Bernard’s.”
But Mater Dei solidified its identity Feb. 26 when it came back from 18 points behind with 1:16 left in the third quarter, 36-18, and beat Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) for the Shore Conference Tournament title. It was the same CBA team that denied Mater Dei in its only other trip to the Shore Conference Tournament finals 32 years ago.
In one other game this season, Mater Dei had to dig deep, coming back from a 12-point deficit to win, 67-55, over Notre Dame High School six games ago Feb.13.
“I felt [achieving team chemistry] was in that game,” Gamble said.
It didn’t come easily, as the new additions to the team made some Mater Dei partisans skeptical.
“A lot of people were against the kids transferring in,” Gamble said. “I hope they feel differently now.”
It also drew some sharp criticism from rival coaches.
Building a team was harder than the previous season when Gamble coached for one season at Cardinal McCarrick High School in South Amboy, which won its first 19 games and finished 21-5 off a 61-55 loss in Non-Public, B South to Wildwood Catholic High School.
A month after the season, Gamble said he heard that Mater Dei expected to close its doors at the end of the school year and had his assistant coach evaluate some of those players.
“He said, ‘They don’t have anybody who can fit in with us,’ ” Gamble said.
Instead, Mater Dei supporters raised $1.6 million to keep the school doors open and a month after Gamble’s assistant coach gave his report, Gamble was told it was his school — Cardinal McCarrick — that would be closing.
“It was ironic,” Gamble said. “I never did foresee that.”
Gamble said he wanted his players at Cardinal McCarrick who were not graduating seniors to have a school to go to in the fall and had returned to his Jersey City haunts, where he played at St. Anthony High School and also coached for many years as an assistant to legendary coach Bob Hurley. He inquired for them at St. Peter’s Preparatory School and at Hudson Catholic Regional High School, where he also had coached for three years. He also looked into Bishop George Ahr High School and Linden High School.
But Gamble said some of his players also had checked around and looked into Mater Dei, where they had expressed a strong interest in attending, particularly seniors NyQuan McCombs, a guard, and Elijah Barnes, a forward. Both eventually became two leading players on this year’s team, along with junior guard Elijah Mitchell.
“I know with Elijah Barnes, his father first had considered CBA for him and then decided against it,” Gamble said. “Mater Dei was a good fit for the kids and their parents because they have a stabilized academics criteria.
“The kids liked the school, the environment and the academics before I myself even knew I was going there.”
Gamble, meanwhile, had been in involved in talks with The Patrick School about being the head coach there. But after the third round of interviews, Gamble said he felt the school did not share the same vision that he said he wanted. In the meantime, Gamble heard that Mater Dei, with a commitment to stay open, was looking for a new boys basketball coach. He applied and was offered the job, as both he and the school felt it was a good fit.
“Those players [who transferred] weren’t registered when I got hired,” Gamble said. “But I did not say to them at the school, ‘You can have these kids if you take me [as coach].’ I would never do that.”
Gamble agreed that once he signed the contract, it was the last push those players needed to enroll at Mater Dei.
But they weren’t the only ones who had to get in sync with the team. Three other players were looking to transfer from Marist High School and decided to go to Mater Dei. Kyle Elliot, a versatile junior guard, would become a leading player and was joined by fellow Marist transfers Kenny Jones, a sophomore guard, and 6-foot-3 junior forward Maleek McKnight.
“I did not know that those three kids had to go in front of the state (NJSIAA) and prove that they were not coming to Mater Dei for athletic advantage. They were approved unanimously,” Gamble said.
And then there was tough Marvin Pierre, regarded more for his football prowess, as a transfer form Rahway High School. He had missed Mater Dei’s other comeback victory over Notre Dame when he was at a football camp at Rutgers University. He got into the game twice in the second half against CBA — the second time late in the game — and he stole the ball away from CBA star Pat Andree, one of the premier players in the state, with 40 seconds to play in a tie game. He drove the length of the court for a layup and was fouled, making a free throw to complete the three-point play.
“We kept putting players on Andree, and we were able to tire him out,” Gamble said.
It was defense that brought Mater Dei back in that game and it’s defense that Gamble said will carry his team first through the state tournament, just like the smothering defense preached by Hurley at St. Anthony.
“At St. Anthony, we tried to get to the ballhandler and get him to spin and then come in from the blind side [for the steal],” Gamble said. “Here we also play man-to-man and pressure the ball.”
Back in those days, Gamble was on the coaching staff when St. Anthony beat Patrick School at Rutgers University during one of its national championship seasons.
“It’s been a whirlwind answering so many text messages the last few days — a tremendous feeling. And beating CBA for the Shore Conference title goes with that one,” Gamble said.