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Christmas Classic Update: Heating Up

Zack Ligouri, Toms River South
Zack Ligouri, Toms River South (Photo by Bill Normile, All Shore Media)

It was an exciting first day of action in this season’s WOBM Christmas Classic and it should only get better when the tournament resumes with the quarterfinals at Pine Belt Arena on Dec. 26. Here is a look back at Saturday’s action as well as a look ahead at the quarterfinals.

Starting his first varsity game against a team with a veteran backcourt, Toms River South sophomore point guard Marquis Davis looked like the one who had been there before in the WOBM Classic first round at Pine Belt Arena.

His fearless performance was emblematic of an Indians team that did not back down despite being the underdog to fifth-seeded Barnegat, as 12th-seeded Toms River South knocked out the Bengals with a 44-42 win in their season opener. Davis scored a career-high 19 points to announce his arrival as a young player to watch in the Shore Conference, and Toms River South (1-0) held its breath as Barnegat (0-1) missed two potentially game-tying shots in the final seconds to allow the Indians to seal the win. Senior forward Zack Ligouri added 8 points in the win.

The Indians will now face another low seed that did damage on Saturday, 12th-seeded Lacey, in the WOBM quarterfinals on Dec. 26 at 6 p.m. at Pine Belt Arena.

After starring for a freshman team that only lost one game last season, Davis came out firing on Saturday, scoring 13 of his 19 points in the first half to give the Indians a 27-15 lead at the half. He also did it against a Barnegat backcourt featuring the McGugan brothers, Aaron and Anthony, a pair of senior three-year starters. Anthony finished with a team-high 13 points in the loss, and Aaron had 10.

“(The hot start) broke the tension because I was nervous coming in,” Davis said. “I saw how they were playing me, and if they were going to slack off, I had to make them pay. That was the only way we were going to win. The McGugan brothers are two of the best guards in the Shore to me, personally, and they make the defense play them, so it was a good test.”

The lead stayed in double digits, 32-22, at the end of the third quarter as Toms River South dug in defensively to compensate for its offensive struggles. Barnegat did not go quietly, however, as the Bengals went on an 8-2 run to start the fourth quarter, slicing the lead to 34-30 after a three-point play by Anthony McGugan. After the Indians missed the front end of three straight one-and-ones, the Bengals had the lead down to 37-35 with 1:02 left in the game.

“We just had to keep our composure as a team, keep attacking, and help on the screens to defend against any threes,” said Toms River South senior guard Elijah Dupree, who had six points.

A pair of free throws by Davis pushed it back to a two-possession game, and Ligouri kept the lead at four points by making one of two free throws with 24.8 seconds to go. Anthony McGugan made it interesting when he hit a pull-up 3-pointer from the top of the key with a hand in his face to cut it to 41-40 with 12.5 seconds left. After being fouled on the ensuing inbounds pass, Davis sank one of two free throws for a 42-40 lead with 10.2 seconds remaining.

On Barnegat’s final possession, Aaron McGugan’s pull-up from the left elbow was just short, and then senior center Ryan Morris, who finished with 8 points, grabbed the offensive rebound but couldn’t get the putback to fall as the buzzer sounded. That allowed Toms River South to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time in the careers of its seniors.

“We haven’t made it past the first round since I’ve been in high school, so I was saying this morning that if we lose, it’s my last one, so we came out and played hard,” Dupree said. “I’m so proud of everybody. They all did a great job.”

“This just helps us a lot because we know we can compete with anybody right now,” Davis said.

That’s the same way that Lacey feels, as the Lions have been as solid as any team in the Shore Conference in the first two games of the season. The Lions rolled past Southern in the opener on Friday night and followed that up with a 53-40 win over fourth-seeded Point Boro (1-1), last season’s WOBM Classic runner-up. Senior forward Logan McDonald led the way with 17 points and 8 rebounds, senior point guard Tasheen Carrow added 12 points, and forward Edgar Lenkauskas had 11 points and 7 rebounds to put the Lions (2-0) into the quarterfinals against Toms River South.

Lacey returned four starters from a 17-win team that shared the Class B South title with Manchester last season, yet earned the 13th seed in the tournament, which did not sit well with the Lions.

“I felt we should’ve been ranked higher than that, but other people didn’t, so we just have to prove people wrong,” McDonald said.

A major reason for Lacey’s early success has been its harassing 2-3 zone, which forced Point Boro into an 11-for-52 (21 percent) shooting performance, including a 2-for-22 showing inside the 3-point line.

“We played a zone to make sure we get matched up on shooters, and we always want to have a guy in a shooter’s face with a hand up,” said Lacey coach Ryan O’Rourke.

“We wanted to slow the tempo down because they want to run up and down the court,” McDonald said about Point Boro. “Our zone is even better than it was last year, and we’ve got the length for it.”

The Lions led 22-20 at the half and then made their decisive move to start the third quarter. They blitzed the Panthers with a 17-3 run to start the second half, with six of the points coming from senior center Tyrell Smith and five from McDonald.

“I was surprised what we did offensively,” O’Rourke said. “We were able to get the ball away from the double team and make that next pass, which led to a lot of easy opportunities.”

Lacey’s defense was forcing Point Boro to settle for contested 3-pointers, and the Lions did a good job of limiting offensive rebounds, which can sometimes be a liability in a zone because defenders are not matched up with a specific player to box out.

“Point Boro is a scrappy team, and they usually are a team that gets a lot of offensive rebounds,” O’Rourke said. “One of our keys for every game is making sure guys box out and rebound on every possession.”

The Lions also slowed down Point Boro standout Shaun Cooke, as the senior point guard finished with 7 points one day after putting 24 points on Manchester in a season-opening win.

“We had to stay in front of him, and not let him get in the lane and start dishing,” McDonald said. “Tasheen did a good job of that.”

Point Boro cut the lead to 40-28 heading into the fourth quarter, but never got closer than nine points the rest of the way because it could not get any shots to fall. Guard Ja’shon Woodard led the Panthers with 17 points.

Despite graduating Class B South Player of the Year Deon Smith, Lacey has become tougher to defend because its offense does not revolve around one player.

“We don’t have Deon Smith, who was amazing last year, but we have more people who can score,” said McDonald, who has led the team in scoring in the first two games.

In the other WOBM Classic first-round games:

(6) Toms River North 55, (11) Central 42

Senior guard Alex Levchenko had 14 points and forward Sean Martin and center Bill Wrightson each added 11 as the Mariners (1-1) advanced to the quarterfinals by downing the Golden Eagles (0-2). Junior forward Solly Stansbury added 5 blocks and 4 steals in the win, and forward Sean Martin chipped in with 9 points. The Mariners will play the winner of Manchester-Red Bank Catholic in the quarterfinals on Dec. 26 at 2:30 p.m.

Senior guard Jeremy Wozniak had a game-high 20 points, hitting four 3-pointers, in the loss for Central.

(3) Manchester 57, (14) Red Bank Catholic 45

Mason Jones and Damiun Moore had 20 points each and the Hawks survived a second-half cold spell to beat trhe Caseys. The Hawks raced out to a 14-0 lead and built a 20-point advantage in the second half before Red Bank Catholic rallied to cut the deficit to 50-42 with two minutes left. The Caseys held Manchester without a field goal in the fourth quarter while outscoring the Hawks 15-8. Manchester will play No. 6 Toms River North in the quarterfinals on Dec. 26.

(10) Brick Memorial 79, (7) Wall 73 (2 OT)

Vince Lombardi hit a game-tying jumper with 17 seconds left to send the game to a second overtime and the Mustangs pulled out a double-overtime win to squash a Crimson Knights comeback. Wall trailed 65-56 with 2:37 left, but rallied to tie the game at 66 on a lay-up by Kevin Waters with three seconds left in regulation.

Lombardi finished with a game-high 29 points and Ryan Cieplienski added 21. Jordan Petitta led Wall with 17 points.

(8) Southern 32, (9) Ocean 25

Mike Gesicki scored a game-high 17 points and the Rams rallied from an early 14-4 deficit to top the Spartans. Alex Cirlincione led Ocean with 12 points and was the only other scorer in double figures.

(2) St. Rose 53, (15) Toms River East 22

Mark Kukoda scored 10 of his 13 points in the first quarter and the defending tournament champions cruised past the Raiders in round one. Connor Leddy, a transfer from CBA, and Jim Rockstedt also had 13 points apiece for St. Rose, which plays Brick Memorial in the quarterfinals on Dec. 26.

(1) Jackson Memorial 55, (16) Brick 30

Brandon Holup scored 14 points and Brandon McDonnell added 13 as the top-seeded Jaguars handled the Green Dragons. Brian Kenny, a transfer from Colts Neck, scored nine points in his Jackson Memorial debut.

A look at the quarterfinal match-ups on Dec. 26

(3) Manchester vs. (6) Toms River North, 2:30 p.m.

Both of these teams have good speed at the guard positions and like to run. Toms River North has the size advantage with 6-9 senior Bill Wrightson and 6-6 junior Solly Stansbury. Manchester is lethal in transition, so Toms River North may look to slow the game down by possibly playing some zone and being methodical on offense.

(10) Brick Memorial vs. (2) St. Rose, 4:15 p.m.

St. Rose is the defending WOBM champion and recently took defending Group I champion Asbury Park to the wire in a Class B Central game to show that maybe the Purple Roses will be better than people think. They are the clear favorite to advance in this game.

St. Rose is led by senior point guard Mark Kukoda, one of the Shore Conference’s best, who can get into the lane and hit from behind the arc off the dribble. This season’s Purple Roses are a guard-oriented group comfortable with playing at a frenetic pace. They have multiple 3-point threats in addition to Kukoda in the form of the junior trio of Sean Maguire, Conor Leddy and Jim Rockstedt.

It should be a nice backcourt battle with a Brick Memorial team led by its own set of quality guards in senior Vince Lombardi, who scored 29 points in the opening round, as well as senior Justin Oakley and junior Ryan Cieplinski. Brick Memorial played two overtime games to start the season and won them both, so the Mustangs’ conditioning is an important factor for them.

(12) Toms River South vs. (13) Lacey, 6 p.m.

This is a battle of low-seeded teams out to prove everyone wrong by making a deep run in the tournament. Lacey’s impressive 53-40 win over Point Boro followed a win over Southern in a regular-season game to start the year.

The Lions are a tough defensive team with good length in their 2-3 zone to harass perimeter shooters and seal off the defensive boards. Senior forward Logan McDonald has emerged as a scoring leader, while point guard Tasheen Carrow is a tough defender who can get into the lane offensively. Senior center Tyrell Smith is 6-5, 290 pounds and has great agility, while forward Edgar Lenkauskas is a versatile threat who has range out to the 3-point line.

Toms River South features a blend of young and old between senior guards Elijah Dupree and RJ Devish, and senior forward Zack Ligouri as well as sophomore point guard Marquis Davis. The match-up between Davis and Carrow is certainly one to watch. The Indians are giving up some size inside to Smith and Co. but Ligouri is very physical despite being a big undersized. Both of these teams are primarily halfcourt teams, although Davis did push the tempo for the Indians when he saw openings in the first round.

Toms River South is going to have to make enough perimeter jumpers to counteract Lacey’s zone, or the Lions will keep rolling right into the semifinals.

(1) Jackson Memorial vs. (8) Southern, 6:45 p.m.

These two Class A South rivals square off in a game in which Jackson Memorial will be heavily favored to reach the semifinals. The Jaguars rolled past Brick in the first round and boast the tallest lineup of any team in the field, including 6-7 Brandon McDonnell, 6-5 Brandon Holup, and 6-8 Eric Carter as well as 6-3 point guard Brian Kenny.

Southern has 6-6 sophomore Mike Gesicki but is undersized at almost every other spot and has struggled to score so far this season. Jackson has myriad offensive weapons at its disposal and can create second shots with its length, so it remains to be seen whether Southern can keep up if the game gets into the 50s or 60s on the scoreboard.

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