When Rutgers Prep coach Mary Klinger looks at her team, then looks at Manasquan, she sees a lot of similarities.
Both play good defense, can score, and can rebound.
And neither has any players who’ve ever been one of the last four teams standing in the State of New Jersey.
But that’s the case when third-seed Rutgers Prep (28-2) and second-seed Manasquan (30-4) meet up tonight at Toms River North High School’s RWJBarnabas Health Arena for the opening semifinal game of the last-ever Tournament of Champions in the Garden State.
Central Jersey Sports Radio will have LIVE play-by-play beginning with the pregame show at 4:45 and tip-off at 5:00. Mike Pavlichko will call all the action; click here to listen for free, with no paywall.
HOW THEY GOT HERE:
- Non-Public South B First Round: bye
- Non-Public South B Quarterfinals: def. 8-Holy Spirit, 75-15
- Non-Public South B Semifinals: def. 5-St. Rose, 64-34
- Non-Public South B Final: def. 2-Wildwood Catholic, 67-36
- Non-Public Group B Final: def. North B champ Saddle River Day, 62-51
- Tournament of Champions Quarterfinals: def. 6-Univeristy, 58-56
- Central Jersey Group 2 First Round: def. 16-Nottingham, 61-15
- Central Jersey Group 2 Quarterfinals: def. 9-Johnson, 69-20
- Central Jersey Group 2 Semifinals: def. 2-Holmdel, 62-59
- Central Jersey Group 2 Final: def. 2-New Providence, 52-35
- Group 2 Semifinals: def. South champ Haddon Heights, 60-38
- Group 2 Finals: def. North 1 champ Jefferson, 65-36
- Tournament of Champions Quarterfinals: bye
Rutgers Prep is led by sophomore Mikayla Blakes. The 5′ 8″ guard is averaging nearly 18.5 points per game, and leads the team with 55 treys, and gets to the line when she attacks the basket; she’s hit a team-leading 100 free throws this season. She can also dish it and swipe it, averaging a team-leading 3.6 assists per game, and 3.4 steals.
Junior guard Katie Ledden has had a great postseason. She’s a veteran who’s really come into her own, and is leading the team in the state tournament, averaging 17.6 points per game. She had a double-double against Saddle River Day, with 16 points and 14 rebounds, then followed it up in the TOC quarterfinals with 23 points against Unversity, all coming in the first three quarters.
For the Argonauts, though, as big as Blakes and Ledden have been, it’s about the supporting cast, too. Chloe Escanillas had a big seven-point fourth quarter off the bench against Saddle River Day. Zahra Alexander saw key time – even if she didn’t fill the stat column – against gritty University. All that adds up. And the defense has clamped down since that 39-point loss to St. John Vianney back on Super Bowl Sunday.
For Manasquan, Brooke Hollawell leads a balanced attack, as she has all season long. She’s averaging 10.4 points a game over the season, but has upped that in the state tournament to a team-best 14 ppg. She injured her ACL in the final week of last season; despite that, the fourth-year varsity player has racked up 1,039 points in her career, the most of anyone on the current team.
Mary Elizabeth Donnelly has had a great state tournament, too, averaging 9.5 points per contest, and scoring in double figures in three of her last four games. Going back to the Central Jersey Group 2 semis against Holmdel, she’s scoring at an 11.5 clip. What makes that all the more impressive is she’s drawn the top defensive assignment in many games this year, and she’ll no doubt also be challenged to go up against either Mikayla Blakes or Katie Ledden – or both – depending on what defensive looks the Warriors show.
Rutgers Prep is a bit on the young side, even if Blakes and Ledden are veterans. So are Morgan Ryan and Layla Castro, both seniors, as well as Antonia Bates, who’s headed to Rutgers next year. But none have been in the Tournament of Champions before, with the Lady Argos’ last berth coming in 2017.
The same, though, can surprisingly be said for Manasquan. Though this is their seventh trip to the TOC, all under current head coach Lisa Kukoda, they haven’t been since 2018. Granted, there was no Tournament of Champions in 2020 or 2021. But the point is, while Kokoda has been at this stage before – and they’ve won the TOC three of the six years they’ve been in it – no one playing tonight, for either team, has ever been among the state’s final four.
Click below to hear an audio preview with both head coaches of tonight’s Tournament of Champions Semifinal game between Rutgers Prep and Manasquan: