As Rutgers Prep jockeyed for position early in its Tournament of Champions quarterfinal-round game against University, Mary Klinger brought her team together and offered a stern reminder.
“I said to them at one point that they’re a state champion like we are,” Klinger said. “You don’t become a state champion by being bad. We had to give them the respect that their due, we had to play harder.”
Rutgers Prep (28-2), the No. 3-seed in the last T of C that will be held in New Jersey, did enough to take down sixth-seeded University for a 68-56 win on Wednesday night at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena in Toms River—although it never came easily.
Katie Ledden poured in 23 points after a spectacular first half and Mikayla Blakes, the Argonauts’ leading scorer this year, finished with 18 as Rutgers Prep won a Tournament of Champions game for the first time in program history after semifinal-round exits in 2016 and 2017.
But the biggest test comes next.
Rutgers Prep, the No. 4-ranked team in the NJ.com Top 20, will meet second-seeded and No. 2-ranked Manasquan in the T of C semifinals on Friday night, with the winner likely advancing to the final at Rutgers to face top-ranked St. John Vianney. Both teams had a fair case to earn the No. 2-seed and advance straight into the semifinals, but it ultimately went to Manasquan.
“We knew what the three seed meant to us, especially because we didn’t get the two seed,” Blakes said. “We’re fighting harder to go and beat them Friday. The seeds don’t mean anything to us, it’s just an extra game for us to play in this gym so we can get used to playing in this gym.”
University (19-8), a young, athletic team that will certainly be among the state’s best next season, raced out to a 7-2 lead against Rutgers Prep, but the Argonauts’ rode Ledden’s hot hand to take a 10-point lead at the half.
Rutgers Prep stretched its lead to as large as 20 points in the second half, but a stingy University team refused to go down quietly. Destiny Bynum-Johnson, who finished with 23 points to match Ledden for a game-high, knocked down three long 3-pointers to ignite a 9-0 run for the Phoenix, getting the deficit down to 11 points before the score finalized at 12.
“In the first half, we were getting over and trying to get in the path, which we didn’t have much success with,” Klinger said about guarding University. “In the second half, we went to switch it. And when (Bynum-Johnson) made a couple of threes, I decided to put Blakes on her and I think she only had one right after that and it kind of slowed her down a little bit. I told them we can’t switch. We had to get over the screens, get up on her and kept moving her back further and further. I think she only made one after that.”
Freshman Paradise Fisher added 14 points to University, which won a third straight Group 1 title to reach the Tournament of Champions. And still, the future is bright.
“At the end of the day, we got a young team,” University coach Amiri Baraka, Jr., who fell to 0-4 all-time in the T of C, said. “They kind of met the challenge. I felt like we were in the game the entire game. They played their hearts out. It’s their first time in this kind of situation, so I expected us to win but I think we played well. I think we showed New Jersey that University is a team to be reckoned with once we get the experience and once we get all that stuff under our belt. I’m just happy for the ride and the experience we got today”
That Rutgers Prep will face Manasquan on Friday is, in a way, fitting. The Warriors knocked out Rutgers Prep in the T of C semifinals in 2016 in its first-ever trip to the tournament and, in the past decade, teams like Rutgers Prep, St. John Vianney and Manasquan—among select others—have been the best programs in the state.
All Rutgers Prep needs to match those teams, of course, is a T of C title.
Klinger deflected attention away from the seeds and the enticing matchups and was adamant that Rutgers Prep is focused simply on the next game, which happens to be against Manasquan.
“I know all the Twitter wars going on about the seeding and as I’ve told anyone that has asked me, I don’t care about the seeding,” she said. “There are six champions and you have to beat somebody really good to be a champion. Manasquan, St. John Vianney, it’s doesn’t matter because you have to beat some really good teams. The fact that their both here at the Shore? Good for them. Both coaches do a really great job and we’ll be prepared. We’ll be ready to go Friday night and we’ll see what happens.”
A win on Friday will likely mean that Rutgers Prep gets a rematch with No. 1-ranked St. John Vianney, the team that beat the Argonauts by 39 points on Feb. 13 at Kean University—a game Rutgers Prep has talked about since the day it walked off the court in that decisive loss.
“We’re excited for sure,” Blakes said. We’re excited for Friday’s game, to win it, and get to Sunday and hopefully get that rematch against SJV.”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism