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TOMS RIVER -- After playing its worst offensive half of the season in Thursday's Shore Conference Tournament semifinal vs. Christian Brothers Academy at RWJBarnabas Health Arena, Marlboro did the opposite of what one might think a team struggling on offense would do: they focused on playing better defense and rebounding better.

The Shore's most dynamic offensive team was shut down for the first half and held in check over the full 32 minutes, but Marlboro -- the No. 2 seed in the Shore Conference Tournament -- made up for it with one of its best defensive efforts in a 45-37 win over No. 6 CBA that extends Marlboro's winning streak to 16 and sends the Mustangs to their second ever SCT championship game.

For the second straight year, Marlboro will take on Manasquan for the Shore Conference title after losing last year's unofficial Shore Conference Playoff championship game to the Warriors in overtime. Marlboro's lone official championship appearance came in 2017.

Marlboro senior Jay Ratner goes up over CBA freshman Justin Fuerbacher. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Marlboro senior Jay Ratner goes up over CBA freshman Justin Fuerbacher. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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"We knew that we had to stick together," Marlboro senior Jack Seidler said. "We’re not used to being down like that, but we didn’t want to feel the way we felt the last two years. We wanted to get that chance to get back and hopefully win our first Shore Conference title."

Seidler and fellow senior Jay Ratner each scored 12 points to lead Marlboro and senior Jonathan Spatola added 11 in the balanced, low-scoring Mustangs attack that proved sufficient because of the second-half defensive performance that kept CBA to 14 points.

"Our shot was kind of off and we weren’t getting that many things going for us offensively," Seidler said. "Defensively, that’s where we won the game.

"A lot of their open shots and their points came off of second chances. We knew if we could control the boards and get out in transition, that’s how we play our best basketball."

Marlboro senior Jack Seidler shoots over CBA junior Joe White. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Marlboro senior Jack Seidler shoots over CBA junior Joe White. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Coming off a quarterfinal win in which it held a Rumson-Fair Haven squad on a 13-game winning streak to 41 points, CBA picked up where it left off in the first half of Thursday's game. The Colts held Marlboro to 6-for-20 shooting with five turnovers, keeping the Mustangs out of their transition game by protecting the ball in its own right and crashing the offensive glass.

"We feel like we’re so strong in transition and that’s where a lot of our east baskets come from," Seidler said. "We didn’t get too many easy baskets there in the first half, so we knew if we could get some steals, get some rebounds and get out in transition, that would open things up. Jon had a big three, we got a couple open layups and everything just came together for us."

The Colts also went into the halftime locker room with some juice thanks to a thunderous dunk by junior Joe White to make the score 18-14 and a corner three-pointer by Will Bradley that put his team ahead, 23-16, at the break.

"They definitely played harder than we did in the first half," Ratner said. "Credit to them: Joe (White), Justin (Fuerbacher), they came out getting rebounds all over the place. Joe had that crazy dunk. They had a lot of momentum, but at halftime we talked about how we have to lock down on the boards, because they were getting a lot of second-chance points, which is how they beat us the first time."

Marlboro's third-quarter bounceback was a slow burn but heated up after two minutes. Spatola hit a three-pointer that cut the deficit to 23-20 and later tied it at 23 with another three with 4:35 left in the quarter.

The teams traded several baskets and on the last score of the quarter, Marlboro senior Vin Spatola converted the go-ahead, transition layup as he was fouled to put the Mustangs up, 29-27.

Bradley started the third quarter with a three-pointer to give CBA the lead back , but it was short-lived and never came back. Seidler answered by getting inside for a layup to ignite a 10-0 Marlboro run that opened up a 39-30 lead for the Mustangs.

CBA managed to slice Marlboro's lead to 41-37 on a White three-pointer, but the Mustangs hit 6-for-7 free throws down the stretch to put the game away.

Bradley led CBA with 11 points, freshman Justin Fuerbacher added 10 and White finished with eight. White and Fuerbacher keyed the effort on defense and the boards, which was especially impressive for Fuerbacher after Marlboro went after him during the two regular-season meetings between the Shore Conference Class A North rivals.

Marlboro junior Jonathan Spatola. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Marlboro junior Jonathan Spatola. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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"He is going to be a good player for them for the next three years," Ratner said of Spatola. "He has a phenomenal amount of potential. He played great defense, he is going to grow. We kind of targeted him in the first two games, but he came out here and played great defense on me and on everyone who he switched onto."

Thursday's win was a rubber-match win for the Mustangs, who lost at CBA, 66-60, in overtime on Jan. 4 and paid the Colts back, 71-36, on Jan. 24.

On Sunday in the championship, Marlboro will be looking for some more payback when the Mustangs take on No. 5 Manasquan for the second straight season with a championship on the line. Andrew Solomon's last-second layup broke Marlboro's heart in overtime, 58-56 -- denying the Mustangs their first ever postseason tournament championship, albeit what would have been an unofficial one during the COVID-shortened season.

"I’m looking forward to it," Seidler said. "We need some revenge from last year. It’s a bunch of different guys, new faces, but we need that revenge."

"It’s not the same team, but in a couple ways it is," Ratner said of Manasquan. "They’ve got Ben on the sidelines teaching them stuff, coach (Andrew) Bilodeau, who is a great coach. He wasn’t at the finals last year, but he’s back and he’s a great coach. Darius is a great player. We take no team lightly and they are a great team."

Marlboro senior Zak Molod. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Marlboro senior Zak Molod. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Now in his 10th season, Marlboro head coach Mike Nausedas has the Mustangs positioned as one of the best teams in the Shore and, potentially, one of the best in all of Group IV -- which was not far off in either of the past two years despite the Mustangs being short on seniors. Two years ago, Marlboro made it to the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV final for the first time and also lost in crushing fashion, with a buzzer-beater winning the game for South Brunswick and wiping out what would have been a championship-winning shot by Seidler.

Sunday's game will indeed be official, so if Marlboro can scratch together a 16th straight winning performance, the Mustangs will finally claim their elusive championship, one that barely evaded them two years ago -- when Seidler, Spatola and Ratner were sophomore starters along with Alex Ratner, Jay's older brother -- and again last season.

"I would like to end it with a Shore Conference championship on Sunday and a Group IV championship whenever that is," Ratner said. "Credit to Alex Ratner. He built what you see here. He taught us all how to play in big games, so that’s a credit to him. We want to win this for him too."

Marlboro junior Vincent Spatola. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Marlboro junior Vincent Spatola. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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