Braves top Mustangs, 64-59, on strength of comeback in fourth quarter


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MARLBORO β€” There has been a whirlwind of excitement on the hardwood this week for the Manalapan High School boys basketball team.

On Dec. 20, the Braves defeated Howell High School, 63-57, and they followed up that victory with a 64-59 win over Marlboro High School on Dec. 21 in Marlboro. The Braves stormed back from a five-point deficit in the fourth quarter to edge the Mustangs and claim their second win of the 2022-23 season.

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β€œTo come back and beat an experienced team like that feels great. Marlboro is our rival. It makes it feel even more special,” Manalapan senior Jake Buchman said.

New coach Matt Conklin is encouraged with his team’s 2-1 start and said, “We are super proud of the kids. We are trying to build something and these (wins) help.”

Manalapan entered the fourth quarter trailing Marlboro, 49-44, and was down 51-46 with under 6:00 to play.

Helping to lead the Braves on the comeback trail was senior Anthony Leger, who scored six of his team-high 16 points in the fourth quarter.

Leger’s biggest bucket came after teammate Phil Pearlman scored on a layup with 2:00 to play to give Manalapan a 56-55 lead.

The Braves forced a turnover on Marlboro’s next possession and Leger converted it into a layup when he put his head down and drove past Daniel Elmasri to give Manalapan a 58-55 lead with 1:26 to play.

Through three games, Leger is averaging more than 16 points per game. He scored 24 points in Manalapan’s victory over Howell.

β€œIt’s all the hard work I have been putting in showing out,” Leger said. β€œWe are going to surprise a lot of people this year.”

Clutch free throw shooting down the stretch helped the Braves hold off the Mustangs.

Buchman and senior Dylan Sullivan led an 8-10 performance from the charity stripe in the final minute. Sullivan was 4-4 in the final minute and finished with 12 points, while Buchman was 3-4 and finished with 10 points.

β€œWe practice (free throws) every day. We just had to knock them down,” Buchman said.

Senior Kassan Scott scored 14 points for Manalapan before exiting with an injury in the fourth quarter.

Leading the way for the Mustangs was senior Alex Frank, who scored 19 points. Senior Ryan Mendes added 14 points and Elmasri tallied eight points.

It has been an emotional ride to begin the season as well for Marlboro (1-1).

First-year coach James Reuter and the Mustangs eked out a 65-62 season opening victory in overtime against Middletown South High School on Dec. 15.

Reuter has succeeded Michael Nausedas as Marlboro’s coach and the team has had to replace all five starters from last year’s Central Jersey Group IV state sectional tournament championship squad.

Even with all the changes, Reuter said this is not a rebuilding season. The coach believes his players have the talent to do great things to continue the program’s success.

β€œI love the group I have,” Reuter said. β€œThe talent is deep. We just have to build on the experience of playing varsity minutes and playing in crunch time situations. It is a work in progress, but we are getting better with every game.”

Manalapan will participate in the Matawan Regional High School Huskies Holiday Classic beginning on Dec. 27.

Marlboro will compete in the 38th annual WOBM Christmas Classic at the RWJBarnabas Health Arena in Toms River. In 2021, the Mustangs won the WOBM tournament for the first time in program history.

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