Dean Noll used to dream about these kinds of games on this kind of stage.
But reality has been even better than his imagination.
Shawnee's splendid senior guard and his teammates kept alive their postseason drive with a 68-47 victory over Woodbury on Tuesday night in the quarterfinals of the Tournament of Champions at Toms River North High School.
Noll scored 25 points in a sensational all-around performance as Shawnee (29-4), the Group 4 state champion and No. 3 seed, advanced to meet Non-Public A state champion and No. 2 seed Don Bosco Prep (27-2) in Thursday night's semifinals back at the RWJ Barnabas Heath Arena.
At stake will be a berth in Sunday's Tournament of Champions title game in Trenton.
"It's just been awesome," Noll said of Shawnee's drive through the postseason, which included consecutive victories over powerhouse programs such as Atlantic City, Trenton and Newark East Side.
In the Tournament of Champions opener, Shawnee squared off with a scrappy Group 1 champion in Woodbury (21-12), which featured a top player in junior guard Aaron Estrada.
The lefthanded Estrada, a clever ball handler, finished with 23 points and helped keep the Thundering Herd in contention through the first half, which ended with Shawnee holding a 25-23 lead.
"In the first half, we were closing out, we were rebounding, we were doing what we needed to do," Estrada said. "In the second half, we lacked that."
Woodbury coach Mark DiRugeris said the game turned in the third quarter, when Shawnee hit four three-pointers and stretched the lead to 50-31.
"They hit some good ones and opened the game up," DiRugeris said. "I'm beyond proud of my guys."
Shawnee senior forward Dylan Deveney scored 17 points, hitting a trio of three-pointers, and senior swingman Daevon Robinson contributed 11 points, 10 rebounds and six assists while guarding Estrada at the defensive end.
"Daevon does so much for this team," Shawnee coach Joe Kessler said. "He's the guy who holds us together. He doesn't let these guys stop playing hard."
The game was a showcase for Noll. The 6-foot-1 athlete shot 11-for-19 from the field and 3-for-4 from the foul line. He grabbed six rebounds, dealt seven assists and lifted four steals while committing just one turnover.
"They're not a tall team and I felt like I could get to the basket," said Noll, who scored again and again on twisting drives that ended with reverse layups. "They didn't really have a shot blocker."
Noll performed at a Player of the Year level during the regular season, averaging 22 points and assuming a larger share of the ball-handling duties with junior Pat Kernan on the sideline with a knee injury.
Points were harder to come by in the state tournament, as better defenses focused more of their attention on limiting Noll's ability to get in the lane.
"Teams were trying to stop him," Kessler said. "And we were playing some great teams."
Noll was front and center at crunch time in the state finals, scoring seven points in the fourth quarter of a pulse-pounding, 56-53 victory over Newark East Side.
In Tuesday night's victory over Woodbury, Noll kept slicing through the heart of Woodbury's defense and finishing by banking soft shots off the glass or dishing to teammates for open looks.
In one memorable sequence, Noll fired a behind-the-pass to Deveney for an open layup and 52-33 lead.
"We've been dreaming about this since we were little kids," Noll said. "It's unbelievable. It's hard to describe.
"We're just trying to stay focused and take it one game at a time."
Woodbury 8 15 8 16 – 47
Shawnee 13 12 25 18 – 68
W: Aaron Estrada 23, Thomas Carter 13, Marcus McGruder 5, Hakeem Thomas 4, Javon Solomon 2.