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GROUP III CHAMPS: Manasquan Reaches Tournament of Champions

Warriors win first group championship since 1988

Michaela Mabrey collected the long inbound pass from Katelynn Flaherty, set her feet and launched, the three-point shot finding the bottom of the net, a whoosh of emotion rising with the cheer from the crowd.

A two-point Manasquan lead had been extended to 10 points in less than a minute, and the Warriors knew nothing could stop them now but themselves.

And they had no intention of doing that.

Mabrey scored 12 points in the fourth quarter, and her sister, Marina, had a pair of steals as Manasquan defeated Teaneck, 78-65, to win the NJSIAA Group III girls basketball championship at Pine Belt Arena in Toms River.

Manasquan, led by Katelynn Flaherty's 25 points, won its first Group title since the Warriors won back-to-back Group II titles in 1987 and 1988. The Warriors advance to the Tournament of Champions, where they will face sixth-seeded Cedar Creek, the Group I champion, on Tuesday night at 8 at Pine Belt Arena.

"(Reaching the TOC) is huge," said Michaela Mabrey, the senior McDonald's All-America selection who's headed for Notre Dame. "You can set a goal but if you do nothing to work on it it means nothing. This is a great feeling to win this. I'm so happy."

It wasn't an easy victory. And it emphasized again that while Mabrey is clearly an outstanding player, Manasquan's success depends on the fact that it has a group of players who can step up when the team needs them.

On Sunday, one of those keys was Flaherty.

Manasquan (29-2) struggled early in the game as Teaneck (24-3) pushed the tempo and attacking the Warriors relentlessly, making it tough to get off clean shots and those that did bounced off an unfriendly rim time and again. With 1:20 left in the first quarter, Manasquan trailed by 10, with Flaherty keeping the Warriors close with seven points.

"I knew we had to get in the flow of the game," Flaherty said. "I had watched them on film and I knew they were fast, but they were even faster than on TV. I knew we had to get in the flow of the game. We were kind of going too fast. We were trying to slow things down."

"Usually Michaela sets the pace," Manasquan coach Felix Romero said. "Today it was Katelynn. She moved well without the ball and got open. She was great."

Manasquan chipped away at Teaneck's lead, trailing by 5, 24-19 at the end of the first quarter, as the Highwaywomen continued to push the pace. Michaela Mabrey struggled from the floor, with shots bouncing away time and time again. She finished the first half with just 5 points.

On the defensive end, the Warriors struggled to contain sophomore center Kayla Gibbs, who hurt them repeatedly taking passes into the post for easy layups.

"We were hesitant to adjust too much to Gibbs because they had four other players who could score," Romero said. "But we finally realized how important it was to box out and get some rebounds."

Marina Mabrey and Amanda Hagaman began clogging up the paint, making it tougher for Gibbs to get the ball, let alone make the easy layups. Marina Mabrey also made some key steals, and when she was fouled after a steal halfway through the second quarter, hit a pair of free throws to give Manasquan the lead at 27-25 with 5:11 left in the first half. While Teaneck tied the game twice after that, the Highwaywomen -- despite Gibbs' game-high 27 points -- were not able to take the lead back.

"They were getting too many extra shots off rebounds," Marina Mabrey said. "I knew I had to get the ball and not let them have so many shots."

That's not to say Teaneck stopped applying pressure. They continued hounding Michaela Mabrey any time she was in the post, double-teaming her. With her long-range shots not falling, she was frustrated, Michaela Mabrey acknowledged.

Manasquan was able to maintain a lead going into the fourth quarter as the Warriors continually burned Teaneck on inbounds passes, with Flaherty sometimes hitting one of the Mabrey sisters cutting under the basket for a quick layup, and at other times the Warriors kicked the ball out and quickly passed to for a quick jumper in the lane.

"Every time they thought they had adjusted, we ran something different," Romero said. "We have a lot of options with that play."

But all those plays did was keep Manasquan one step ahead, with Teaneck answering often to keep the game within a couple of possessions.

Until Michaela Mabrey drained that 3-pointer off a long inbounds pass from Flaherty, that is. A long two-pointer and another 3 and the Warriors finally looked like they were having fun.

"I got into a rhythm finally," Michaela Mabrey said. "Once I got my rhythm, the whole team lightened up, they started smiling. They knew I was ready to go off."

And now she and her teammates have advanced to the next step on their path to their ultimate goal, which is a Tournament of Champions title.

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