Manalapan boys’ hoops team still working to get on winning track

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By Jeff Appelblatt

Despite the return of arguably its best player, Matan Zucker, Manalapan High School’s boys’ basketball team has continued its struggle to steer into the win column.

In fact, the Braves lost the first three games their leading scorer was back on the court for, falling by double figures to Freehold Township High School, Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) and Holmdel High School.

The competition was rough, as the three aforementioned opponents combined for a 27-11 record coming into this week, beginning with Freehold Township’s unblemished 14-0 mark.

Zucker’s ankle was injured early in the season and caused him to miss eight games between Dec. 22 and Jan. 12, and he wasn’t back to 100 percent when he took the floor Jan. 17 against the Shore Conference A North Division’s top team, Freehold Township. Nonetheless, he was happy to be back.

“It feels good [to be back],” Zucker said after the loss. “Today’s 28 days since [the injury]. [The Leg] is a little shaky. It almost trembles a little. But it will be good in 20-25 minutes. Then practice tomorrow, and then I’ll be good.”

But even though he wasn’t in his top form, winning is still Zucker’s top concern.

“It sucks that we lost, but we could only go up,” he said.

However, things haven’t gone up for Zucker and his teammates following the 69-48 defeat to the Patriots. CBA beat the Braves, 54-43, two days later, and Holmdel defeated them, 62-45, two days after that.

Zucker scored 24, 22 and 13 points in the three games, but it wasn’t enough for the still-struggling Braves.

“It’s going to take some time. We’ve got to rediscover ourselves now again with Matan added to the mix, and now each day it will get better. That’s what we’re hoping for,” Manalapan coach Rick Garretson said after one game with Zucker back. “[Jan. 14] was his first practice.”

The team is still trying to come together.

“Guys are starting to have to find themselves. Their roles are a little redefined,” Garretson said after the loss to CBA. “They’ve got to find out how to play together.”

John Lugo was Manalapan’s go-to guy while Zucker was out, but his redefined role has him back at scoring fewer than eight points per outing. He led the team with 18.5 points per game while Zucker was out.

Garretson believes his team will figure things out before it’s too late, especially if the Braves sharpen their defense.

“We’ve got to do a better job defensively. We had some great trips where we did what we wanted to do defensively, and we had some trips where we just got lazy.” the coach said. “We’ve got to stay sharp. We got to get better rotations [and] better splits. [Guys need to] help, rotate back and stop the dribble penetration.”

If Manalapan (2-11) plans to get back in the mix of things, it will take contributions from everyone, and Garretson has faith in his players turning the season around.

“We work on everything [at practice]. We’ve got to take better care of the ball. [We work on our] free-throw shooting everyday. [We work on our] defense. [We work on] running our sets. ” Manalapan’s coach said. “You play everybody twice for a reason. No reason we can’t flip it the second time around.”

Manalapan hosted Freehold High School for their second matchup of the season Jan. 24. The Colonials (1-13) defeated the Braves, 61-46, in the second game of the year, which was the contest that Zucker fell on his ankle.

Manalapan will take the court again Jan. 27 at 6:30 p.m. at Colts Neck High School. The Cougars (8-5) crushed the Braves, 85-70, in Manalapan’s first full game without Zucker.

Garretson just hopes his plan to get his team more familiar with wins works out.

“[We have to] get back to work, get some continuity and just keep playing hard,” the coach said. “If we keep working hard, then good things will happen.”