WEST LONG BRANCH – Four of Ranney’s starting five in last week’s Shore Conference Tournament final have been starters for all four years at the school, while the fifth transferred in as a sophomore.
Last season this starting quintet led the Panthers to their first Shore Conference Tournament championship in program history and last week they became just the seventh school in the history of the tournament, which dates back to 1937, to win back-to-back championships at least once.
“The first two years, we thought we had a pretty good team,” said Villanova commit and McDonald’s All-American Bryan Antoine. “To have another team celebrate at Monmouth University for the Shore Conference Tournament (championship), we wanted the feeling. The fact that we were able to do it not just once but twice is unbelievable.”
“Obviously, our rivals (Mater Dei) did it our freshman and sophomore year and that’s still in our heads,” said senior Scottie Lewis. “We had the possibility to do that as well and win it three or four years if we did those little things like we’re doing now but to win it back-to-back means everything to us.”
The top-seeded Panthers – ranked No. 1 in the Shore and 13th nationally in the USA Today Top 25 – did what they were expected to do and defeat No. 2 seed Manasquan, 70-60, at the Ocean First Bank Center on the campus of Monmouth University, but it wasn’t easy.
A determined and physical Warriors team bolted out to a 6-0 first-quarter lead and led 15-7 at the 3:11 mark before Lewis and company went to work.
“They came out and scored six straight (points) on us,” said Lewis. “They hit some tough shots and had the energy on their side. We just didn’t blink, we didn’t let up and we did what we needed to get done. They kind of put the ball in my hands and I had to do what my team expected me to do as a leader and a captain.”
The 6-foot-6 University of Florida commit and McDonald’s All-American energized his team as well as the 4,105 fans in attendance with two thunderous dunks that surely got Gator nation high on anticipation of his arrival on campus.
Lewis set up both dunks with his own steals at the other end before driving the length of the floor. On his first one, he elevated above the rim for a highlight-reel, two-handed 360 slam then wooed the crowd with a monstrous one-handed slam dunk that tied the game at 17-17.
Antoine’s three-pointer off a pretty pass from Phillip Wheeler, who hauled in seven boards, blocked three shots and had three steals in the game, had tied the game at 15-15. Antoine followed Lewis’s dunk with a vicious one-handed dunk of his own to complete a 12-2 run and a 19-17 lead after one quarter.
“Late in the first quarter we started to get some deflections and steals,” said Antoine. “Me and Scottie had back-to-back dunks and the coaches kept talking about playing defense like we practice playing defense. It’s just us playing hard – not gambling for steals.”
Lewis scored 18 of his team-high 27 points in the first half along with six rebounds, three steals and four blocks. Twelve of his 18 points came in the second quarter when he scored all but two of Ranney’s points. His three-pointer off an Alex Klatsky feed with 1:27 left in the half gave the Panthers a 33-25 lead before Kieran Flannigan got Manasquan to within six, 33-27, with a bucket right before the half.
Senior Brad McCabe had 14 points for Manasquan, going 4-for-5 from three-point range helping to keep the Warriors in the game, but he was only getting heated up. For the game, the 6-foot-5 guard shot an unimaginable 9-for-10 from three-point land and 11-for-13 from the field for a career-high 33 points along with seven rebounds and two assists.
However, McCabe’s heroics weren’t enough for the Warriors to pull off what would have been the biggest upset in Shore Conference Tournament history.
“Manasquan’s a great team, they’re well coached and they execute their stuff,” said Ranney head coach Tahj Holden. “Brad had 33 tonight and that’s kind of frustrating because I coached him a long time ago. I told him to have a good game but not too good, but he didn’t listen.”
The Panthers pushed the lead to 13 points, 48-35, at the 2:38 mark of the third quarter with senior point guard Ahmadu Sarnor furnishing seven third-quarter points, but McCabe ignited a 7-0 run with a trey to pull them to within 48-42 at the end of three.
A layup by Flanagan to start the fourth cut Ranney’s lead to four, 48-44, to make it a 9-0 run, before Sarnor stopped the bleeding with a bucket at the 6:40 mark of the fourth.
Lewis, who finished with a team-high 10 rebounds, five steals, four blocked shots and two assists to go with his team-high 27 points, followed Sarnor’s two with a layup, then fed Sarnor for a three-pointer sending the Panthers on a 7-3 run and some breathing room at 55-47 with 5:25 left in the game.
Sarnor, the fifth member of Ranney’s version of the Fab Five, scored 16 of his 18 points in the second half, including nine points in the crucial fourth quarter.
“I tried not to force too many shots,” said Sarnor, who had five first-half steals. “I felt like I forced a lot in the beginning of the game but I took my time (in the second half). Scottie was hot in the beginning of the game and everyone (Manasquan) was looking towards him. So, I was open a lot in the second half.
“We knew they were good in transition, so it was important for us to control the tempo of the game. We tried to hold the ball and make them come to us so that we got easier baskets,” Sarnor added. “They’re going to get in transition, especially Brad. He likes to hit three’s in transition so we had to control the tempo get a good shot and dominate in the half court.”
McCabe, trying to will his team to the win, hit a three to pull Manasquan to within 55-50, but that’s as close as the Warriors would get, as Ranney followed McCabe’s three with a 7-0 run for a 12-point lead, 62-50, with 1:40 remaining in the game.
Lewis capped off the run with another one of his patented super-slams after a steal which was only fitting on a night that was full of them.
“I thought the difference in the game was the six breakaway dunks that we handed to them,” said Manasquan head coach Andrew Bilodeau. “As ridiculous as it sounds, for the game plan we had in place, I thought our kids did an outstanding job.”
McCabe hit one last three at the buzzer to make the final score 70-60, after a parade of Ranney players went to the foul line in the closing minute, including the final two free throws by Antione, who finished with 17 points, four rebounds and two blocked shots, to put the finishing touches on the game.
With the Shore Conference Tournament championship now behind them, Ranney will attempt to become the first Shore Conference team in history to capture the Tournament of Champions title, which as the No. 1 ranked team in New Jersey, they’re favored to win.
Last season, they got as far as the NJSIAA Non-Public B final where they dropped a heartbreaker, 63-61, after leading eventual T.O.C. champion and nationally ranked Roselle Catholic by seven points in the fourth quarter.
“I remember being there (Toms River), watching my teammates crying and Ahmadu dropping to his knees right away,” said Lewis of last year’s loss to Roselle Catholic. “There were cameras in our faces taking pictures of our tears. There’s still a lot of anger and hatred built up from that moment. A lot of people wanted us to win but a lot of people wanted us to lose and we’re coming for those people.”
“Everybody was gunning for us this time around,” said Holden. “It’s one of those things where you play to win championship games and anytime you have that opportunity, you’ve got to seize it. This year is this year, last year was last year and next year will be next year. Every one is tough.”