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Christmas Classic Update: Jackson Memorial & Toms River North Set to Meet in Finals

Sean Martin, Toms River North
Sean Martin, Toms River North (Photo by Cliff Lavelle, All Shore Media)

Toms River North senior forward Sean Martin was his team’s leading scorer as a junior last year, so when first-year coach Rory Caswell told Martin before the season that he was not going to be shooting as much this season in the scheme, he expected Martin to need time to adjust.

Just five games into the season, Toms River North’s opponents have already started to key on other players, and when St. Rose threw most of its defensive attention to perimeter players Alex Levchenko, Karl Blum and Damian Singleton during the WOBM Christmas Class semifinals on Wednesday night, Martin once again emerged as a scoring threat.

Martin scored a team-high 16 points and converted a three-point play with 1:02 left in the second overtime to put the Mariners ahead for good in a 46-43, double-overtime win over the defending tournament champions at Pine Belt Arena. Toms River North will try to capture its first tournament title since 2007 and third overall Friday night against Jackson Memorial in the championship game at 7:30 p.m.

“Sean was the leading scorer on the team last year, and I told him before the year that he wasn’t going to get as many shots in the new system,” Caswell said. “We have a lot of kids who can score and create offensively, and it’s not easy for a kid to hear that his numbers are going to go down. But I’ve also been telling him that there are a lot of points to be had on the offensive glass and if he works hard on the boards, he’s going to score, and to his credit, he has bought in and he came through tonight.”

St. Rose took a 43-42 lead on Conor Leddy’s fifth 3-pointer of the game midway through the second overtime. Singleton handled the ball for most of the ensuing possession and after driving to his right, he dished the ball to Martin in the corner. Martin drove baseline and converted a lay-up as St. Rose senior forward Dean Devaney positioned himself to draw an offensive foul. The call went in favor of Martin and Toms River North, and the senior converted his free throw to make it 45-43.

“I heard the whistle and I looked right up at the referee,” Martin said. “I knew I beat (Devaney) there, but you still want to make sure you got the call. I saw him signal ‘and one’ and that fired me up.”

Martin also hit one of two free throws to put Toms River North up 46-43 with 17.6 seconds left. St. Rose senior guard Mark Kukoda got off a clean look from 22 feet out on the left wing, but his potential game-tying three rimmed out as time expired.

“We had a foul to give so coach told us to foul them if they were going to basket, but we didn’t want to put them on the free throw line,” Singleton said. “That shot was close. He’s a good player, but that was a hard-fought victory for us. We’ve been working hard, and we earned it.”

St. Rose employed a triangle-and-two match-up zone during the first half and guarded both Levchenko and Blum one-on-one. Levchenko – Toms River North’s primary ball-handler – scored four points and Blum went scoreless after leading the Mariners in scoring in two of their first four games.

Singleton took advantage by scoring seven of his 11 points in the first half and became a distributor when the Purple Roses shifted to a straight man-to-man defense after halftime. The 6-3 Martin, who had six points at halftime, benefited from the adjustment by getting into the paint, grabbing offensive rebounds and finishing around the basket against a smaller St. Rose lineup.

“That’s been the great thing about us so far,” Caswell said. “Sometimes, you say you have a lot of different guys who can beat you, but we really have that. It’s been somebody different every game and when the other teams tries to take one thing away, we find offense somewhere else. Guys are buying in, playing unselfish and they’re seeing it pay off.”

With St. Rose’s attention divided among four Toms River North players, the Roses lost track of senior Rich Gebbia in the final minute of the fourth quarter and Gebbia made them pay. After Leddy scored off a Toms River North turnover to put St. Rose up 37-34, Levchenko lost the ball on a drive to the basket on the ensuing possession. Mariners junior Solly Stansbury picked up the loose ball and quickly kicked it to Gebbia in the left corner and the senior buried a game-tying 3-pointer with 35.7 seconds left, the final points scored by either team in regulation.

“He’s in the game to take that shot,” Caswell said of Gebbia. “He missed one or two of them earlier in the game, but if he’s in the game, that’s because we want him to shoot it. He has the confidence, we have confidence in him and when the play broke down, he came through and made a big shot.”

Toms River North nearly let the game slip away again in the first overtime period. With the game tied at 40 in the final seconds, Leddy tried a three from the left corner and after the shot missed, Martin and St. Rose guard Jim Rockstedt both went up for the rebound. Martin was whistled for a shooting foul, with the official ruling that Rockstedt tried to rebound the ball and shoot it in one motion. The foul was only Toms River North’s fifth after halftime, which meant a loose-ball foul would have given St. Rose the ball under the basket with 3.7 seconds left.

Instead, a shooting foul gave Rockstedt two shots with 3.7 seconds left to tie the game, but the senior missed both, the second after Caswell called timeout in an attempt to ice him while also drawing up a play for the last shot.

“I would just hate to see a great game like that end on the free throw line,” Caswell said. “(The officials) said the kid tried to shoot the ball as he was rebounding it all in one motion and if that’s the case, that’s a real heads-up play on his part. Still, you hate to see a game end like that, but fortunately, we caught a break and he missed them.”

St. Rose shot just 2-for-8 from the free throw line, with Kukoda missing all three of his attempts after he was fouled on a 3-point attempt late in the fourth quarter.

“I look for body language after something like that and Jimmy (Rockstedt) was a little down on himself,” St. Rose coach Denis Devaney said. “I tell kids that they’re not the reason we lost the game. They’re not good enough to be the reason we win or lose. I just felt bad for him because people look at two missed free throws and say, ‘That lost them the game,’ when it was really a lot of things that lost the game. We went 2-for-8 from the free throw line, so those two were just a small part of the game within another small part of the game, and it all adds up.”

Toms River North used its size advantage against St. Rose, which did most of its damage from behind the 3-point arc. The Purple Roses hit nine threes against Toms River North’s 2-3 zone, but that zone took away St. Rose’s motion offense and restricted the passing lanes thanks to the wingspans of Martin, Blum and Stansbury. Leddy finished with 17 points with five threes while Kukoda hit three from behind the arc and finished with 11.

Stansbury, a transfer from Deleware and the son of former NBA guard Terence Stansbury, has been a disruptive force in the paint during the tournament with his 6-7 frame and long reach. His two blocked shots Wednesday were a tournament-low for him, but St. Rose stayed out of the paint more than most teams. He finished with eight points and nine rebounds.

“They got quite the Christmas present when they got him,” Devaney said of Stansbury.

The Mariners will face Jackson Memorial Friday in what will be the first of at least three meetings between the two Shore Conference Class A South rivals. Jackson is 5-0 and has had double-digit fourth-quarter leads in all of its games.

“We already know each other very well, and we’re going to get to know each other even better over the next few months,” Caswell said. “It’ll be fun to play here, in our gym in a championship game to give our kids a chance to play in a big-game setting.”

Box Score

Toms River North 46, St. Rose 43 (2 OT)

Toms River North (46): Damien Singleton 5 0-1 11, Alex Levchenko 1 2-4 4, Karl Blum 0 0-0 0, Sean Martin 7 2-3 16, Solly Stansbury 3 2-2 8, Kyle Carrington 1 0-0 2, Bill Wrightson 1 0-0 2, Rich Gebia 1 0-0 3. Totals: 19 6-10 46

Three-Pointers: Singleton, Gebia

St. Rose (43): Mark Kukoda 4 0-3 11, Conor Leddy 6 0-0 17, Dean Devaney 0 0-0 0, Sean Maguire 3 2-3 8, Jim Rockstedt 1 0-2 3, Tyler Long 2 0-0 4, John Styslinger 0 0-0 0. Totals: 16 2-8 43

Three-Pointers: Leddy 5, Kukoda 3, Rockstedt

Toms River North (4-1) 10 11 7 9 3 6 - 46

St. Rose (3-2) 7 11 12 7 3 3 - 43

By Matt Manley

Brian Kenny, Jackson Memorial
Brian Kenny, Jackson Memorial (Photo by Cliff Lavelle, All Shore Media)

Entering the season with some of the highest expectations of any Jackson Memorial team in the history of its boys basketball program, this season’s Jaguars have learned to deal with having a large target on their back every time they take the floor.

In Wednesday night’s WOBM Classic semifinals at Pine Belt Arena, 12th-seeded Toms River South was the latest underdog trying to grab a headline against top-seeded Jackson Memorial, but the veteran Jaguars showed the type of poise they will need to go deep into the postseason. Trailing by two points at halftime and only leading by four points heading into the final period, Jackson Memorial closed out strong for a 52-44 victory over the Indians. It put the Jaguars (5-0) into Friday’s final against sixth-seeded Toms River North at 7:30 p.m. at Pine Belt Arena as they seek their second WOBM Classic title in the last three seasons.

“We know everybody wants to get us, but we still try to play like we’re the hunter, not the hunted,” said senior forward Brandon Holup, who had 8 points and 9 rebounds.

“Everybody is putting all these expectations on us, and they can do what they want, but they are not our expectations,” said Jackson Memorial head coach Joe Fagan. “Our expectation is to try to get better every day, and that’s not coaches’ talk, that’s the honest truth.”

Senior guard Brian Kenny, a Colts Neck transfer, had his best game yet with his new team, scoring nine of his game-high 16 points in the second half and dishing out six assists to lead the way offensively. Six-foot-seven senior forward Brandon McDonnell added 14 points and 12 rebounds as coaches from Dartmouth and Lafayette who came to watch him looked on. Holup spearheaded a strong second-half defensive effort that included cooling off Toms River South’s leading scorer, senior guard Elijah Dupree, who dropped in a team-high 15 points, but only two of them in the second half after Holup was switched to guarding him. Senior forward Tony Skwiat also chipped in with eight points.

“I thought they did a good job of trying to take us out of what we tried to do, but in the fourth quarter, we executed,” Fagan said. “We ran our stuff, and made some adjustments. We also did a better job defensively on Dupree. Holup did a great job.”

The Jaguars were clinging to a 26-25 lead in the third quarter when they made a key burst behind Kenny, who started a 9-3 run with a driving lay-up, which was followed by a putback by Holup. Kenny then set up guard Nick Specht for an easy layup and later followed with a nice pass to Skwiat for an easy bucket before capping the run by making one of two free throws for a 35-28 lead with 2:03 left in the period.

“They were pressuring me full court, so I wanted to take advantage of that,” Kenny said. “I didn’t think they could stay with me. They were just trying to get up and make steals, but I knew I could go by them, so I just took advantage of it.”

“(Kenny) is a great addition,” Holup said. “He can bring the ball up the court and give (senior guard) Elliot Bell a break, and he’s a good defender and gives our team more size for rebounding.”

The Indians (3-2) recovered to cut it to 37-33 by the end of the third quarter helped in part by a 3-pointer from sophomore Darius Hart (10 points), one of seven 3-pointers in the game for Toms River South. Meanwhile, the 6-5 Holup had neutralized Dupree, who hit three 3-pointers in the first half but was scoreless in the third quarter.

“When I close out, my arms are long, so I come out with my hands up and that usually stops guys from shooting,” Holup said.

“(Dupree) was knocking them down early on, but I think with Holup’s length and athleticism, he couldn’t really see as well,” Kenny said. “It affected his shot a lot.”

Toms River South guard R.J. Devish scored his only points of the game to cut Jackson’s lead to 37-35 early in the fourth quarter, but the Jaguars responded with a 7-0 run to put the game away. Kenny scored on a baseline cut off a pass from McDonnell, then McDonnell put back a missed free throw by Specht before Kenny capped the run by gliding in for a layup with 3:22 left in the game.

The Indians never got closer than seven points after that, as the pre-tournament favorite Jaguars cemented their spot in the championship game. They were able to fend off a Toms River South squad that led 23-21 at halftime thanks to five 3-pointers as a team and 13 points by Dupree. Jackson also began the game without Bell, a starter who showed up late near the end of the first quarter because of family obligations, according to Fagan.

On Friday, the Jaguars will be the heavy favorite to knock off an upstart Toms River North (4-1) team that is more than halfway to matching all of its wins (7) from last season. It will be the first of at least three meetings with the Mariners, who the Jaguars will play twice in Class A South during the regular season.

“I said to them, ‘We’re going to face 15 more games like this one tonight, and we can win 15 of them because we’re capable of that,”’ Fagan said. “We know how to win close games, and I think we’ve got a lot of close games ahead of us.”

Box score

Jackson Memorial 52, Toms River South 44

TR South (44): Berry 2 0-0 5, Davis 2 4-4 8, Augustino 0 0-0 0, Devish 1 0-0 2, Hart 3 1-2 10, Ligouri 2 0-0 4, Dupree 5 2-8 15. Totals: 15 7-14 44.

Jackson Memorial (52): Simon 0 0-0 0, Kenny 6 4-6 16, Goscinski 0 0-0 0, Hogan 0 0-0 0, McDonnell 7 0-1 14, N. Specht 2 2-3 6, Holup 4 0-0 8, Bell 0 0-2 0, Skwiat 4 0-1 8. Totals: 23 6-13 52.

TR South (3-2) 6 17 10 11 – 44

Jackson Mem. (5-0) 12 9 16 15 – 52

Three-pointers: (J) None; (T) Hart 3, Dupree 3, Berry. Fouled out: (T) Dupree.

By Scott Stump

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