Defense fueled Braves’

run to state playoffs

Garretson’s Braves fall

in CJ IV quarterfinals

to East Brunswick

By tim morris


t didn’t take very long for Rick Garretson and his Manalapan Braves to realize what their strength was this year — defense.

"We saw that we were struggling offensively and if we were going to do, we were going to have to play defense," he said.

At times it meant winning ugly, but it was winning. Despite an offense that never really broke out, Manalapan rode its defense into the state tournament and then to a first round upset in the Central Jersey Group IV playoffs, 55-46 over Piscataway.

The Braves, who looked to be on the outside looking in at the state playoffs in mid-January, extended their season to the sectional quarterfinals where they fell last Wednesday night at No. 3 seed, East Brunswick, 59-45.

"We’ve had great chemistry on defense all year," said Garretson of his Braves, who were seeded 11th in their section. "We’ve played great team defense. The kids work well together. Our goal is to give a team one shot and hit the boards.

"Because of the trouble we’ve had scoring, the kids know they can’t relax on defense; they have to play hard on every possession," he added. "We’ve played a little bit of everything; man-to-man, 2-3 zone and 1-3-1 zone trap. The kids have a good understanding of what works and why."

Entering the state playoffs, Manalapan had held the last four teams it had played under 33 points. To survive and advance in the state tournament, especially when you’re the No. 11 seed playing on the road, playing good defense is a great way to start. But you still need to score more than 40 points a game if you expect to continue.

Manalapan’s offensive strategy has been pretty simple – get the ball to the hot hand. Fortunately, among Matt Kandrach and Doug Saunders inside, and Mark Lax, Ryan Sheridan and Chris Caiola hitting from the outside, the Braves usually had at least one person step up each game to give the offense a lift.

On Feb. 28 in Piscataway, the strategy worked to perfection. Lax had the hot hand beyond the arc and the Braves kept getting him the ball. He nailed three three-pointers in the second quarter alone to help Manalapan forge a 29-21 lead.

Playing with the lead is just what Manalapan wanted to do on the road. It enabled them to control the tempo of the game and with Lax hitting 6 threes and Kandrach playing big inside, the Braves were able to hold the Chiefs in check in the second, and prevail 55-46.

Lax would score a game-high 18 (all on threes) while Kandrach added 12 along with 13 rebounds. Saunders chipped in with 12. He and Lax helped Manalapan jump out to a 14-6 lead after one quarter.

The Braves were looking for a repeat performance on the road last Wednesday against a strong East Brunswick five. For one quarter, the Braves quieted the home crowd as they played to an 8-7 advantage. But the Bears erupted in the second quarter, clawing the Braves 23-5 as Brett Godette led the way with seven.

The lead would swell to more than 20 in the third quarter, but somehow the gritty Braves managed to make the Bears sweat a little in the fourth quarter. With 2:20 remaining, Manalapan had cut the gap to 50-42 when Saunders blocked a shot by the Bears’ Maxx Johnson, but no one could get a handle on the ball and it found its way into Godette’s hands under the basket. His layup was the final nail in the Braves’ playoff coffin.

Sheridan led Manalapan’s second-half comeback scoring all 12 of his points. Kandrach had 10 and Caiola nine. It was a rare four-point play by Caiola that started the Manalapan comeback.

Godette led the Bears (20-4) with 16. Point guard Bob Henning had 15 and Johnson 11.

Manalapan finished its season 14-10. What Garretson will remember most is the way the players were able to put their egos aside for the team. Their team play enabled them to be greater than the sum of their parts and overachieve.

"I never had to worry about selfishness on this team," Garretson explained. "This was a very unselfish team. All the kids cared about was winning. It didn’t make a difference who was doing the scoring. They weren’t worried about shots, just winning. It was a fun team to coach."


analapan was the only boys team to get past the first round of the sectional. Like the Braves, Freehold Borough and Howell were hot teams at the end of February, but couldn’t carry it over for 32 minutes in their playoff game.

Freehold Borough (16-9) wasted a 37-27 half-time lead at New Brunswick (17-7) in Group II. A 19-9 third quarter pulled New Brunswick even, and an 18-13 fourth quarter edge led to a 64-59 victory for the eighth-seeded Zebras.

Rohn Schutsky (20) and Richard Harrell (16) combined for 36 points in their career finales for the ninth-seeded Colonials. Schutsky’s six threes had helped the Colonials jump out to the early lead.

For Freehold Borough, it was a hard way to end such a positive season. The team won the Kuhnert Memorial Holiday Basketball Tournament, named for the Colonials late coach, and had a winning record for the first time in three years. Still, they would have liked to have made some noise in the state playoffs.

Back in CJ Group IV, the Rebels, the ninth seed, were even more giving. They had led by eight, 40-32, going into the fourth quarter against No. 8 New Brunswick. Howell had come back from a 14-7 first quarter deficit to tie it at 21-21 at intermission. A 19-11 third quarter edge put Howell in control entering the fourth quarter.

But the final eight minutes would be a nightmare as the Vikings took no prisoners. Ricky Tyus poured in 14 of his game-high 27 as the Vikings outscored the Rebels 33-19 to roll to a 65-59 victory.

Tom Coleman, who sank five treys, led Howell (13-12) with 20 points while Chris Brown had 16 and Chris Hurley, 10.

Despite the setback, the Rebels can look to a learning season in which they won 13 games and made the state playoffs. All of Howell’s key players, Brown, Coleman, Hurley and Charles Skinner, are returning. The Rebels have a lot to look forward to in 2001.