By Jim Hintelmann
WEST LONG BRANCH – For most of Saturday’s Shore Conference Boys Basketball finals, it seemed as if top-seeded and defending champion Mater Dei Prep would be the victim of another Marlboro upset, but the Seraphs came through when it counted down the stretch.
The sixth-seeded Mustangs had shocked No. 2 Ranney and third-seeded Freehold Township in their previous two conference playoff games and had played the Seraphs evenly until late in third quarter when Kyle Cardaci and Elijah Mitchell led a late charge that gave Mater Dei Prep an impressive 54-41 triumph before a near sell-out crowd at Monmouth University.
Mater Dei’s quickness, depth and athleticism proved to be the difference as coach Ben Gamble utilized his strong bench and 11 players saw action. Marlboro, in contrast, had only six players through a good part of the game and that took its toll.
“Marlboro is a very good team and they controlled the tempo in the first half,” said Gamble. “I used almost the entire team tonight because Marlboro had beaten some good clubs to get here, and I needed some fresh legs.
“We mixed up some changes in the second half, “ he said. “We knew that Ryan LaRocca and Dan Weiss were their best shooters and we did a good job on them.”
Trailing 32-29 midway through the third quarter, Mater Dei finally made its move and used a 15-2 run to take control of the game.
Two free throws by Eddie Lewis, a layup from Elijah Barnes and a three-pointer from Cardaci put the Seraphs in front, 36-32, for what proved to be the final time of the game.
Marlboro’s Dylan Kaufman temporarily stopped the streak with a layup, but Mitchell, who earned Most Valuable Player honors, dropped in a long jumper from the left side at the buzzer to make it 38-34 going into the final quarter.
“I do everything we need to win,” said Mitchell, who had three steals and 12 points along with a solid defensive effort. “We have a lot of skills and I think we can go as long way. We put a lot of pressure on them in the second half and I think we wore them down.”
Mater Dei’s Yasin Pretlow opened the final quarter with a three-pointer and Cardaci added another three for a 44-34 advantage, but Marlboro still wouldn’t quit as LaRocca made a three-pointer and Kaufman scored on a neat layup to narrow it to 44-39 with 3:30 left, but Cardaci followed with a three-pointer and a three- point play to put the game away.
Cardaci, a junior transfer from Holmdel High School who was not eligible until Jan. 17, started off slowly, missing his first five shots, but he warmed up in the second half with all 14 of his game points.
“The shots weren’t falling,” Cardaci admitted, “but I stayed calm and just didn’t think about it because I knew that they would begin to fall in.
“Marlboro was ver y physical and hustled.” he said. “This is awesome and it’s a great feeling to win. That was why I came here.”
“We had a target on our backs this year because we had won the Shore Conference last year,” said Gamble, who had coached at Cardinal McCarrick in South Amboy before moving over to Mater Dei two years ago when McCarrick closed.
“We were able to prepare our kids this year and toughen them up,” he said. “I knew the history of the Shore Conference and how competitive it was. We took everybody’s best shot and succeeded. Now we have to get ready for the states.”
This article was first published in the March 2-9, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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