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MIDDLETOWN -- The Raritan boys basketball team made its mark this season even before its Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinal game against Central Regional Saturday by winning 18 of its first 19 games and routinely finding ways to win one of those close games -- one of which was a one-point, triple-overtime victory over Saturday's opponent back in early January.

On Saturday, however, Raritan came out like a team that was less interested in managing another close game and more like a one-loss juggernaut that wanted to let it all hang out in the program's first Shore Conference Tournament semifinal appearance in 12 years.

Raritan the No. 4 seed in the SCT -- got off to a hot start Saturday against No. 12 Central and never looked back, throttling the Golden Eagles, 57-37, to punch its ticket to the SCT semifinals Tuesday night at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena in Toms River, when the Rockets will play top-seeded Manasquan.

"The seniors on this team are phenomenal," Raritan coach Denis Caruano said. "Even the other guys knowing their roles and just buying in: they don't care who the leading scorer is, who the leading rebounder is, they don't care who gets the ball at the end of the game. They just want to win. It's a testament to the parents, to the town and trying to do what we're doing with a tight rotation is something."

With a 19-1 record this season, Raritan has had its share of one-sided victories, but the Rockets have more often than not pulled out close games against the better teams on their schedule: Central during the regular season, Shore Regional, the second game vs. Holmdel, the first game vs. St. John Vianney, a pair of games vs. Matawan and Thursday's round-of-16 win over Red Bank Catholic.

Instead of sweating out another fourth quarter on Saturday, the Rockets spend most of the fourth celebrating what turned into a rout.

"The boys showed up with a little bit of an attitude today," Caruano said. "They were a little upset about things that were said about us, about who we have played and how we have played and that's fine. They are kids. We came out knowing if we can get the shots we want and execute, I know we'll play defense.

"I would have paid to watch this team tonight. We got here a little earlier to kind of get a sense of the atmosphere. I told them this was only the fourth time in our school history getting this far. It's the greatest day of basketball, from back when it used to be at (Red Bank Regional) and then Brookdale and now Middletown South puts on a nice show."

Raritan's all-senior lineup delivered from top-to-bottom and back-to-front Saturday, with four starters finishing in double-figure scoring and the one who did not -- forward Matt Agar -- making a huge impact defensively and in passing the ball with five assists to go along with his four points.

Senior Mike Diller led all scorers with 18 points, while senior Jack O'Leary posted 13 points, 11 rebounds and four assists to pace the Rockets. Jack Coleman and Billy Tigar each added 11 points for Raritan, with Coleman also hauling in nine rebounds.

Coleman's three-pointer prompted an early Central timeout with Raritan out to a 7-0 lead and a jumper by O'Leary gave the Rockets a 9-0 lead with a 4-for-4 start from the field. The lead stayed at nine, 16-7, through the end of the first quarter -- a far cry from the first meeting between the teams, in which Raritan trailed, 19-12 at halftime and 25-15 midway through the third quarter before rallying for a triple-overtime win.

"Coming out and hitting those early threes really helped us," Caruano said. "Last time we played them, we didn't have a three the whole game and that was with three overtimes. We got out to a good-sized lead today and when they came after us, we got a lot of layups and and-ones going to the basket, trying not to just pull the ball out and hold it."

Raritan kept pounding away in the second quarter, starting with a 9-2 run that built a 25-9 lead. Central responded with seven straight points to pull within single-digits, but Diller banked in a runner three-pointer at the second-quarter buzzer to send the Rockets to the halftime locker room up 28-16. From that point on, Raritan never led by fewer than 10 points.

Junior Miles Chevalier scored 12 points to lead Central, which has still never reached the semifinal round of the Shore Conference Tournament after qualifying for the SCT quarterfinals for the first time in 29 years.

Saturday marked just the fourth time in program history that Raritan played in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals and the last time the Rockets were there, they won the whole thing in 2011. This year's team is having its best season since that year, with its 19 wins already the most since the 2010-11 team finished 24-3.

While this season has already been a monumental one for this senior class, it would reach a new level with a memorable performance in Tuesday's semifinal in Toms River. Raritan will take on a top-seeded Manasquan team that is considerably younger in its starting five compared to Raritan, but has won 45 games over the past two seasons with its current core of two sophomores and two juniors.

Tuesday could be the first of two postseason matchups between Manasquan and Raritan, with Manasquan projected as the No. 2 seed in the Central Jersey Group II bracket of the NJSIAA Tournament and Raritan likely to be the No. 3 seed in the same section. Both teams would have to win two home games to set up a state tournament matchup.

Caruano is familiar with seeing Manasquan twice per season after spending years in the same Class A Central division as the Warriors, with the 2019-20 season the last time the two teams shared a division. This group of Raritan seniors were freshmen at the time and while they were not yet making a varsity impact, they are familiar with Manasquan's reputation and talent.

"I said to them, 'We're going to play what we play,'" Caruano said of his message to the team about what is to come in the 72-or-so hours following Saturday's win. "We're not going to do anything different. I know we don't have a shot clock New Jersey, but we're going to show up and play basketball. If we run our offense, make enough shots and we can get it to a two-possession game late, we believe we can win. We're not showing up thinking we're going to get our butts kicked."

 

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