The more things change, the more they stay the same in the world of New Jersey girls basketball.
The field for the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions was set during the weekend when the six state finals were contested at Pine Belt Arena and once the dust cleared on Sunday evening, multiple Shore Conference teams were through to the TOC for the sixth year in a row.
No. 5 seed and first-time Group I champion Point Beach (25-1) will open TOC play this evening against No. 4 seed and Non-Public B champion Trenton Catholic (23-6) at 6 p.m. back at Pine Belt Arena. That game will be followed by third-seeded Red Bank Catholic (28-1) taking on No. 6 seed and first-time Group III champion Ocean City (26-4) at 8 p.m.
The RBC-Ocean City will take on No. 2 seed and Group IV champion Rancocas Valley (29-1) on Thursday at 6 p.m. at Pine Belt Arena, while the Point Beach-Trenton Catholic winner will play No. 1 seed and prohibitive TOC favorite Malcolm X Shabazz (30-1) at 8 p.m.
This year’s final is slated for the 8,600-seat Sun National Bank Center in Trenton on March 19 at 6:30 p.m.
With the six girls state champions and six boys state champions convening at Pines Manor in Edison for the annual TOC Luncheon, it was a good time to reflect on the grind it has been to get to this point.
“It’s a very difficult road to get here,” said RBC head coach Joe Montano, who coached the Caseys to TOC wins in 1996 and 2000 while steering them to this point for the first time since 2007. “When you figure you’re dealing with 15, 16, 17-year-old kids that are taking exams, getting sick, injuries and all the things that go on during the winter season. You’ve gotta be a little bit lucky, you’ve gotta hope some things fall your way and you gotta try to get better as the year goes on and I think our kids have really hung in there.”
While Montano is no stranger to the TOC, Red Raiders head coach Paul Baruffi is. Culminating in a 50-37 win over Jefferson in Sunday’s Group III final, Ocean City used senior leadership and a respectable schedule to finally get over the hump in Group III after being a contender in that bracket in recent years.
As Freehold found out when it lost to the Red Raiders in a Group III semifinal, they will likely look to grind the pace down to a halt, making every possession vital. That tactic is something RBC has proven it can handle.
“They’re a well-rounded team,” Baruffi said of Red Bank Catholic. “They can really shoot the ball, they can penetrate very well, it’s going to be a real challenge for us. I’m hoping we go in there and have the same attitude we had on Sunday, in that it’s just another game.”
While Red Bank Catholic-Ocean City could be viewed as something of an old school vs. new school matchup, Trenton Catholic-Point Beach could be viewed the same way.
The Lady Mikes captured their fifth Non-Public B title since 2007 on Saturday against Morris Catholic and is no stranger to the TOC, having won it for the first time in 2011.
The Garnet Gulls, somewhat improbably despite the gaudy record, are here for the first time after Katelynn Flaherty and Marina Mabrey combined to score all 56 points in a two-point win over Bloomfield Tech on Sunday in the Group I final.
Point Beach was dominated on the boards on both ends and escaped with a win thanks to key plays late from both girls. Trenton Catholic is favored in this game, but Lady Mikes head coach Khaliq Lewis-El is well-aware of what Flaherty and Mabrey are capable of.
“I’ve never seen two individuals on the same team with that much talent,” Lewis-El said. “It’s just ridiculous the things they can do on the court. They’re special kids. I’m just hoping our team can overcome that. They’re just special.”