BERKELEY TWP. - The Toms River North boys basketball team did not operate at 100 percent efficiency with junior guard Colin Baker out of the lineup, and since he has come back, the Mariners have begun to look like the program that has won 54 straight Shore Conference Class A South games, four straight division championships and reached the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals in four straight seasons.

On Saturday at the Coaches vs. Cancer Showcase at Central Regional, Baker was once again the final piece of the puzzle in Toms River North's biggest win of the season.

Baker hit the go-ahead jumper with 30 seconds left and the Mariners knocked off Cherokee - the No. 16 team in the latest NJ.com State Top 20 - 44-43 for their seventh straight win.

"This is definitely big for our confidence," Baker said. "It shows we can go out and play with a top 20 team in the state and one of the top teams in Group 4."

Junior Jakari Spence led Toms River North with a game-high 23 points, all of which came after a rocky first quarter for him and his team.

Toms River North junior Jakari Spence is presented the game MVP trophy by Central Regional coach Mike Clemente Jr. at the Coaches vs. Cancer Showcase. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Cherokee (11-3) stormed out to an 18-3 lead by the end of the first quarter and saddled Spence with two fouls by the tail end of the quarter. Toms River North coach Rory Caswell drew a technical foul arguing Spence's second foul and it turned out to light a fire under his team, particularly his leading scorer once he re-entered the game in the second quarter.

"I told the guys, 'Coach always has our back, so now we gotta go have his,'" Spence said. "He got that technical and I think it definitely fired us up. It's always good to see him yell at somebody other than us for a change."

Spence scored nine points in the second quarter to help trim Cherokee's lead to eight by halftime, hit a go-ahead three-pointer to send the Mariners to the fourth quarter with a 32-31 lead, and his final points came on a three-pointer to cut Cherokee's lead to 43-40 with two minutes to go.

Junior Najae Hallenbeck finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds, including the basket that cut the Chiefs' lead to 43-42.

Cherokee missed its final three free throws, including the front end of two different 1-and-1 opportunities by Anthony DiCaro, setting the stage for Baker.

"Coach (Caswell) called for the handoff play so I knew coming off the screen to look for the shot," Baker said. "The defender went under, so I didn't hesitate."

Baker missed six games due to tendinitis in his knee and continues to play through it. He scored only two points on Saturday, but they proved to be the difference in what could prove to be a significant win for Toms River North (10-3).

"Everyone is starting to get healthy and we are all starting to click like we know we can," Baker said. "It's great to be a part of it. I'm not 100 percent and I'll have to find ways to get some rest and work around it, but I definitely want to be out there for my team."

Cherokee entered the game leading the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV bracket in power points and will be among the foremost teams standing in the way of Toms River North as the Mariners aim for their first NJSIAA sectional championship.

With Shawnee and Atlantic City struggling this season, the bracket figures to be as wide open as it has been in some time. Toms River North's win on Saturday proved the Mariners should be considered a serious threat as the calendar flips to March.

"This is a big statement game for us," Spence said. "They are in South Jersey Group 4 with us and they were number one coming into today, so this is obviously big for our power points."

 

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