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Since missing out on qualifying for the Shore Conference Tournament by one day back on Feb. 4, the Marlboro boys basketball team spent the remainder of the regular season proving it belonged in the 26-team field, even if the SCT rules stipulated otherwise.

Those games, however, were power-point boosters and tune-up games. Would Marlboro's strong finish to the regular season translate when the games became win-or-go-home in the NJSIAA Group IV Tournament.

Marlboro gave a resounding answer: the upgraded version of the Mustangs was for real.

The complete team turnaround continued into the state tournament and carried Marlboro all the way into the Central Jersey Group IV semifinals -- Marlboro's third straight trip to that stage of the NJSIAA Tournament. With wins over Hightstown and Class A North rival Freehold Township during the first week of NJSIAA Tournament play, the Mustangs are the Week 8 Jersey Mike's Team of the Week.

Photo: Steve Meyer
Photo: Steve Meyer
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This season marked the first season since 2018-19 that Marlboro failed to reach at championship game in a postseason tournament, but considering the senior talent the Mustangs lost from last year's record-setting team, Marlboro exceeded expectations.

The year began not only with five new starters, plus a new head coach in James Reuter, but also with returning sixth man A.J. Schwartz sidelined with a broken leg suffered during the football season that figured to sideline him for the entirety of the basketball calendar.

With all that, plus a difficult schedule to overcome, Marlboro was submerged under .500 for most of its season. A loss to Freehold Township on Jan. 31 and an inability to add an extra game to the schedule before the cutoff date made the Mustangs ineligible to qualify for the Shore Conference Tournament, despite beating Red Bank on the day of the seeding meeting to get to 9-9 overall.

That Red Bank game, however, was significant for another reason: Schwartz made an unexpected return. He was cleared to play at the beginning of February and made an instant impact in taking over as a point guard with big-game experience after coming off the bench for Marlboro's 28-3 team a year earlier.

Once the calendar flipped to February and Schwartz returned, Marlboro was unstoppable. The Mustangs won one game vs. Neptune without Schwartz, then rattled off five more wins in a row, capped by an eye-opening win over St. Rose heading into the state tournament.

Once the playoffs started, Marlboro made its bid for Team of the Week by holding off a talented Highstown squad in the first round, 56-48, behind a 26-point effort by senior Alex Frank. Hightstown had cut a 16-point deficit to two, when Frank came up with a steal and layup with a minute left to make it 52-48 and set Marlboro on a winning course.

Two days later, the Mustangs traveled to Freehold Township for a third meeting with the Patriots after the teams split the regular-season series in Class A North play. Marlboro got off to a strong start and never looked back, downing the No. 2 seed in the Central Group IV section, 55-42, to earn another trip to the sectional quarterfinals.

Frank came up big again with a game-high 18 points and Schwartz conducted the offense with 10 assists to go with his five points. Juniors Dan Elmasri (15 points) and Steve Scimone (14) each cracked double-figure scoring in the win as well.

For 20 minutes of Marlboro's sectional semifinal game at South Brunswick, the Mustangs were in position to knock off the Vikings, but the home team pulled away for a 72-61 win to end the Mustangs' season.

Marlboro's eight-game winning streak leading up to its season-ending validated the program as one that could reload following heavy losses to graduation.

2023 Jersey Mike's Team of the Week Winners

Week 1: Raritan

Week 2: Southern

Week 3: Middletown South

Week 4: Lacey

Week 5: Ocean

Week 6: Ranney

Week 7: Manasquan

Week 8: Marlboro

 

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