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TOMS RIVER -- As eighth-graders, the current group of Manasquan seniors watched their future team win the 2018 NJSIAA Tournament of Champions to become New Jersey's best team.

For the last four years, the talented class has been working on blazing its own championship trail and on Tuesday night, they did something no Manasquan team has done since 2018: punch a ticket to the Shore Conference Tournament final.

Facing the last team from New Jersey to beat them, the third-seeded Warriors engineered a dominant defensive game and led from start-to-finish in a 51-30 win over No. 2 Red Bank Catholic at RWJBarnabas Health Arena.

"I am so proud of the team we were on the floor defensively," Manasquan coach Lisa Kukoda said. "We always pride ourselves on our defense, but I just felt like we had a jump in our step, we had this energy about us. There was just this electric feeling on the defensive end for us and we just had a fire in our eyes, ready to compete. I’m so proud of them, I think they executed the way we wanted to and they did a great job."

PHOTO GALLERY: Manasquan vs. Red Bank Catholic by Ray Rich Photography

Manasquan senior Mary Donnelly. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
Manasquan senior Mary Donnelly. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

Senior Mary Donnelly led the way with 14 points and six assists, including 12 of her team's 24 points in the first half. As locked in as Donnelly was on the offensive end, her defense against RBC senior, Tennessee commit and McDonald's All-American Justine Pissott was the tone-setter for the Warriors. Pissott scored only five points, which all came in the first half and matched four of her teammates for the team-high in scoring for the game.

"(Pissott) is a very, very talented player, so I just knew I had to be locked in and not let her get shots and I also knew my teammates would be there with help," Donnelly said. "She is one of the best players in the Shore Conference and in the country, so to be able to match up against her, I take a lot of pride in my defense and I didn’t want to let her get shots. She has the size, she has the length and she can pull it right when she gets to halfcourt."

Senior Georgia Heine added 11 points and classmate Brooke Hollawell poured in nine for Manasquan, which took a 5-2 lead on a three-pointer by Heine and never trailed again. Heine also hit a three-pointer with 3:10 to go that put Manasquan ahead by 20 points for the first time, 45-25.

"RBC, they are a great offensive team so we knew we had to play really good defense and do all the little things," Heine said. "Our last game against them, our offense was not very good, so we really had to pick that up and attack their weaknesses."

Pissott hit a three-pointer to cut Manasquan's lead to 14-10 near the midway point of the second quarter, but a 15-3 Warriors run turned a tight game into a runaway for the No. 3 seed.

The reason Red Bank Catholic was seeded one spot ahead of Manasquan was a 55-36 Caseys win over the Warriors on Dec. 30 in the WOBM Christmas Classic championship game, also played at RWJBarnabas Health Arena.

"We’re definitely a different team now than we were the first time we played them," Donnelly said. "We’re playing a lot better, so the big thing was not to get hung up on that. We know we can guard them and we know we can compete."

Since that loss to RBC, Manasquan has won 19 straight games against teams from New Jersey, with losses to Georgetown Visitation (D.C.) and Long Island Lutheran (N.Y.) breaking up the overall winning streak, which currently stands at 15.

"We are a very different team than we were in December," Kukoda said. "I think we are playing differently and the pieces are really starting to come together for us. Obviously, they (Red Bank Catholic) played a great game last time around, but I didn’t think that we were the team we should have been."

Manasquan kept that streak alive on Saturday by fighting off a serious test from No. 6 Holmdel, 62-59. After pulling through on Saturday, the Warriors made sure to work through some of their defensive shortcomings, which were few and far between on Tuesday night.

While the Warriors bring a 19-game N.J. winning streak into Sunday's championship game in Toms River, their opponent will boast a streak considerably longer than that. It has been nearly three full seasons and 72 games since top-seeded St. John Vianney has lost a game to a team from N.J.

On top of the 72-game streak, the Lancers have hardly been tested against in-state competition this season, with all of those wins in 2021-22 coming by margins of at least 17 points.

Manasquan is in its first SCT final since winning the tournament in 2017-18 and will treat its first conference championship game appearance in five years as a golden opportunity.

"I’m personally looking forward to it, to get the opportunity to play the number three team in the country, the number one in the state and the Shore," Donnelly said. "They have some of the best players around, so for us to get the opportunity to play them, I think we’re all excited for that."

"Since freshman year, it’s been our goal to get to play for a championship, so to be able to achieve that is huge," Heine said. "Watching (Manasquan) play when we were younger, I knew I always wanted to play like them and do the things they did. The expectations were really high, so to be able to do anything that the group before us did is just awesome."

PHOTO GALLERY: Manasquan vs. Red Bank Catholic by Ray Rich Photography

Manasquan senior Dorothy Loffredo drives against Red Bank Catholic senior Ally Carman. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)
Manasquan senior Dorothy Loffredo drives against Red Bank Catholic senior Ally Carman. (Photo: Ray Rich Photography)

No. 1 St. John Vianney 79, No. 5 Rumson-Fair Haven 40

Junior Zoe Brooks scored 12 of her game-high 17 points in the first half and the Lancers handled the Bulldogs to reach the SCT championship game for the sixth straight season.

Senior Madison St. Rose added 15 points and classmate Ashley O'Connor poured in 13 for St. John Vianney, which started the game with 12 straight points and stormed out to a 23-2 lead before the first quarter even ended.

St. John Vianney was coming off its first loss of the season, which came against Sidwell Friends -- the No. 1 team in the country -- in Wilmington, Del. on Sunday afternoon. Despite the loss, the Lancers extended their in-state winning streak to 72 games with Tuesday's rout of Rumson-Fair Haven.

Junior Julia Corsentino led Rumson with a game-high 19 points.


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