By Matthew Rocco
Mater Dei Prep had a little more magic left for the Shore Conference Tournament (SCT) championship game.
The Seraphs, facing a Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) team that was playing in its third straight SCT boys basketball final, advanced to the title game for just the second time in school history. And when CBA built an 18-point lead by the final minutes of the third quarter, it appeared the seasoned Colts had a solid grip on the conference trophy.
But by the final whistle, the game proved one of the most memorable Shore Conference comebacks, as the top-seeded Seraphs rallied to a thrilling 50-43 victory.
“I’m still shaking my head. It’s unbelievable,” Mater Dei head coach Ben Gamble said a day after the come-from-behind win — the New Monmouth school’s first SCT crown. “For our guys to come back from 18 points against a school like CBA, which I have a ton of respect for, shows the grit that our guys have.”
CBA, the tournament’s No. 2 seed, was methodical on the offensive side in a rather quiet start to the SCT final at Monmouth University. The Colts opened a 26-13 advantage before halftime. They kept rolling to start the second half, extending the lead to 18 points, 36-18, with 1:16 left in the third quarter.
Gamble signaled for a timeout, and when the Seraphs returned to the floor, they brought the heat. Mater Dei turned to its trademark press, and the Seraphs quickly got to work chipping away at the Colts’ lead. The Seraphs pulled within 11 points to close the third quarter. With 3:28 to go in the fourth quarter, CBA was up by eight.
Gamble said Mater Dei used its high-pressure defense to pick up the pace, and it created opportunities for the Seraphs to put more points on the board.
“We were able to put pressure on the ball. At the timeout when it was 36-29, at that time, the kids were exhausted,” Gamble said.
Mater Dei continued to fight its way back. A critical moment came when Bryan Harris, who came off the bench to lead Mater Dei with 14 points, grabbed the rebound after he missed a free throw on a potential three-point play. Elijah Mitchell put a shot off the glass to make it a two-point game.
NyQuan McCombs evened the score by completing both ends of a one-and-one. Mater Dei then capitalized on a CBA turnover to take its first lead of the night. Marvin Pierre went coast-to-coast, found the net, drew a foul and banked in the free throw with 40 seconds to go.
Down by three, CBA (21-5) turned the ball over and fouled Harris on the other end. He hit both free throws to put the Seraphs up by five.
Over the final 10 minutes, the Seraphs outscored the Colts, 32-7. McCombs ended the game with 12 points, and Elijah Barnes scored 10 points to go with seven rebounds.
Mater Dei’s first and only other appearance in the SCT final came in 1984, when the Seraphs were defeated by CBA.
The Seraphs have taken the Shore Conference by storm this season, turning into a juggernaut with the help of Gamble and several players that followed him from the now-closed Cardinal McCarrick High School in South Amboy.
After posting a 10-15 record a year ago, the remade Seraphs are 24-1 and heading to the NJSIAA tournament with a conference championship to their credit.
“I know the school is elated, the administration is elated and the parents are elated,” said Gamble, a former assistant coach at New Jersey powerhouse St. Anthony High School. “I think in years to come, it will be known that we are an up-and-coming program. With a record of 24-1, it sets the bar very high for the next couple of years, but it’s a good thing because that’s the type of environment we want. At CBA, I know the culture is all or nothing. At St. Anthony, it’s all or nothing. At Mater Dei, I’m trying to build that culture.”
Perhaps the biggest statement Mater Dei could have made this season was taking the SCT title. So, inside the Mater Dei locker room, the goal from the beginning of the season was to win it all.
“I thought it was a realistic goal,” Gamble said.
He was right.
Lancers claim girls SCT crown
St. John Vianney High School’s girls basketball team earned its first SCT championship since 2005 with a big assist from Tina Lebron, who connected on three 3-pointers during an offensive surge in the third quarter.
The Lancers, No. 1 in the tournament, plowed ahead to a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter. No. 3-seed Manasquan High School was able to cut the deficit to six points, but its run ended there. St. John Vianney finished 20-for-23 from the line as a team, including 14-for-17 in the final quarter, and secured a 59-48 victory.
Lebron logged 14 points, while Kelly Campbell was the leading scorer for the Lancers with 16 points.
St. John Vianney goes into this week’s NJSIAA Non Public, South A tournament as the No. 1 seed. The Lancers will begin play March 4 at home against the winner of the No. 8-seed Donovan Catholic vs. No. 9-seed Bishop Eustace Preparatory School first-round game played March 2.