TOMS RIVER - Marlboro junior Alex Ratner started the each of the first two rounds of the WOBM Christmas Classic slowly before heating up before halftime and his team followed suit.

Playing the No. 1 seed in the tournament - an unbeaten Manasquan team ranked No. 3 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - on Saturday night, there was no time for Ratner and Matawan to settle in.

Ratner and the fifth-seeded Mustangs stormed out of the gate and never looked back, taking down the top-seeded Warriors, 56-46, to advance to the WOBM Christmas Classic championship game for the first time. Marlboro will play No. 6 seed Red Bank Catholic Saturday night at the RWJ Barnabas Health Center at 7:30 p.m.

Ratner scored 18 of his game-high 25 points in the first half to lead Marlboro through the first 16 minutes. The junior guard scored six points during an 8-0 run to open the game and finished with 12 in the opening quarter. Senior Kyle LaRocca capped the half with a three-pointer from the corner to send the Mustangs to the locker room with a 33-19 lead.

Marlboro junior Alex Ratner vs. Jackson Memorial. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Marlboro junior Alex Ratner vs. Jackson Memorial in the WOBM opening round. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"Manasquan is a really good team and coach (Mike Nausedas) gave us a really good game plan to try to slow them down," Ratner said. "They have a lot more size than we do, but we felt like our quickness could be an advantage and we just wanted to try to push the tempo whenever we got the opportunity - whether it was with the press on defense or in transition on offense."

Marlboro's relentless attack of the paint with penetration on offense buried Manasquan in early foul trouble and its swarming defense forced 22 Warriors turnovers - a staple of Marlboro's defense over the past four seasons under Nausedas. Senior Anthony Brienza spearheaded that effort by not only collecting five steals to go with his six points but also spending most of his night shadowing Manasquan 6-foot-5 swingman Brad McCabe.

"McCabe still got his points but I thought we did a good job making him work on both ends," Nausedas said. "Our mindset was just to be aggressive and attack. Jump the passing lanes, try to get some turnovers and on offense, we wanted to go at them and get the ball into the paint as frequently as possible."

McCabe picked up two early fouls and spent the majority of the first half on the bench. The senior did bounce back to score 12 points in the second half and 18 for the game but it was not enough to get Manasquan any closer than five points.

While Brienza hounded McCabe and LaRocca, Ratner and junior Ramon Fontanes swarmed Manasquan's young perimeter players, senior Dylan Kaufman drew the assignment of guarding Manasquan 6-7 junior Alex Galvan. Galvan entered the game averaging better than 19 points and 12 rebounds and while he owned the glass with 18 boards, Galvan managed a season-low eight points against Kaufman and the Marlboro defense.

"We face-guarded McCabe most of the game and my job was to front Galvan, deny him the ball as best I could and force him toward the help," Kaufman said. "He has been their big guy down low and he is definitely tough to handle with his length but it was great team effort to make him work and a great job by the guards making it hard to get him the ball."

Kaufman also chipped in 14 points and 11 rebounds of his own to back up Ratner's statistical production.

Saturday's opponent and venue both played in Marlboro's favor as well. The win marked the third time in the last three regular-season meetings that the Mustangs have defeated Manasquan - one in each of the past three seasons. Manasquan did pay Marlboro back in last year's Shore Conference Tournament round of 16.

"We are two good teams and we have been able to have some success against them," Ratner said. "I think tempo is a big thing in facing them. When we have controlled the tempo, we have been able to have a lot of success against (Manasquan)."

The arena in Toms River has also been a special gym for the Mustangs. Back in 2016-17, Marlboro upset Ranney in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals at the arena to reach the SCT championship game for the first time in school history.

Marlboro went only 2-2 in last year's WOBM and its last loss at RWJ Barnabas Health Center came against its Sunday opponent - RBC. The Caseys defeated Marlboro in last year's third place game.

With one more win, this Marlboro team can take another step in shaping its own identity, something last year's team could not quite manage during a 12-12 season that followed, perhaps, the most memorable season in program history.

"It's all about defense this year," said Kaufman, the lone remaining starter from 2016-17. "Last year, we had lost some scoring and some senior leaders from the year before and I think teams figured they would just have to stop me and Alex and we probably relied on that scoring too much. We're both scoring a lot this year, but I think you are seeing everyone else buying into their roles and everyone committing to the defensive end. We know that's where we are going to win games."


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