*Photo gallery by Sports Pix NJ*

TOMS RIVER - Toms River North entered Tuesday night's showdown against Southern with an undefeated record and a WOBM Christmas Classic title already under its belt, but the Mariners knew they still weren't at full power yet.

Between transitioning from football season and trying to get through lingering, nagging injuries from the fall, 6-foot-5 senior center Jordan Craig had yet to resemble the double-double machine that he was at the end of last season.

Toms River North senior center Jordan Craig had a monster night with 24 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks to lead the way to a key divisional win over Southern. (Photo by Sports Pix NJ).

"In practice all the time, we always bust his chops about how he hasn't had his game from last year,'' sophomore guard Mike Nyisztor said. "Last year, he averaged a double-double. He's an unbelievable player, and it was nice to see him finally break out.''

In Tuesday night's 65-60 win over the No. 4 Rams (4-2, 1-1) in a match-up of teams ranked in the top five of the Shore Sports Network Top 10, the Jordan Craig that his teammates and coaches have been waiting for made his first appearance of the winter. He scored a game-high 24 points on 11-for-16 shooting, grabbed 10 rebounds and swatted five shots to lead the way to a big early-season win in Class A South for the No. 5 Mariners (7-0, 2-0). Nyisztor added 16 points to continue his hot start, junior guard Pat Marinaccio had 10 points and 7 rebounds, and sophomore point guard Darrion Carrington had 7 points and 6 assists.

"A lot of times after football you're rusty coming back (to basketball), but now I feel good,'' Craig said. "I was taking my time tonight. In the past few games I was just playing way too fast. I just had to slow down and make my shots."

An explosive tight end in the fall, Craig has football offers from Buffalo, Maine, and Central Connecticut State, with others interested as National Signing Day looms on Feb. 4.

"He was dominant by the end of last year, so we said, 'We're waiting for you,''' Toms River North coach Rory Caswell said. "We've been successful, but we can be a lot better with him being dominant. He made a couple early baskets, which helped, and he just wanted the ball."

Sophomore point guard Darrion Carrington chipped in with seven points and six assists in Toms River North's win. (Photo by Sports Pix NJ)

Craig scored the first four points of the night for the Mariners after being set up on a dish by Carrington to get things started. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound lefty had 12 first-half points on 6-for-9 shooting, including a bucket inside that gave Toms River North a 10-9 lead in the first quarter, and the Mariners never trailed again. He used his size advantage to force Southern's tallest defenders, 6-foot-6 seniors Jake Logue (11 points) and Eric Ray (13 points), and 6-foot-6 junior Peyton Wejnert (20 points), to expend energy on defense by either having to help in the lane or battle him in the post. Logue and Wejnert are one of the top scoring duos in the Shore Conference, and Craig's aim was to make them play both ends of the floor.

"I wanted to try to make them guard me and get them tired, and then take advantage when I'm playing defense on them,'' Craig said. "Then they have nothing left in the tank for offense."

Guard Pat Marinaccio had 10 points and 7 rebounds to help Toms River North remain unbeaten. (Photo by Sports Pix NJ)

Toms River North had the lead as high as 13 points at 43-30 after Craig scored on a lob off an inbounds play with 6:04 left in the third quarter, but Wejnert scored seven of his team-high 20 points in the period to keep Southern in striking distance. The Rams ended the quarter with an 8-0 run capped by back-to-back 3-pointers by Logue and guard Mark Valeriani to cut the lead to 52-48 going into the final quarter, but Toms River North never flinched.

"The maturity level from the WOBM and even from the end of last season has really risen for these kids,'' Caswell said. "Even when they hit those two big threes, there was no panic. We just went right back to Jordan, had some nice possessions and got the lead back up."

A pass from Ray on the elbow to Logue for a lay-up on a high-low play cut the Mariners' lead to 54-52 early in the fourth quarter, and Southern then had a chance to take the lead, but a 3-pointer by Logue was off the mark. That would be as close as it would get, because the Toms River North guards were able to spread the floor and get into the lane to help bring home the win after Craig had done the heavy lifting.

"When you get me going and I get my rhythm, they have to sink in, and I can kick it back out to the shooters,'' Craig said.

"When he's in there just dominating, it just got everyone else open,'' Nyisztor said.

Nyisztor missed a 3-pointer but snatched the rebound and flipped it in, and then he scored again on a driving lay-up in traffic to push the lead back to 58-52. Craig then capped his big night by swatting a shot at one end, then getting the ball back in transition and beating a defender one-on-one off the dribble to finish at the other end for an eight-point lead.

The teams traded baskets from there, and Southern hurt its comeback chances by struggling at the foul line, finishing 13-for-22 in the game, including an 8-for-16 showing by Wejnert. Craig was also a menace as a weakside defender, coming over to block shots when Southern tried to lob it into the post. He patrolled the paint without running into foul trouble, which had been a problem at times for Craig last season.

"We definitely wanted to pack it in (on defense),'' Caswell said. "We said that as long as we contest shots, we were fine with that. (Wejnert) had 20 points, but they weren't an easy 20 points. We made them work for it."

Senior guard Evan Martin drove down the lane to give the Mariners a 62-54 lead with three minutes to go, and the margin stayed at six points until the final seconds as Toms River North wrapped up another solid victory. After steadily rising up the Top 10 in the first few weeks, the Mariners have stamped themselves as the team to beat in Class A South.

"We won the WOBM title, but we have to forget about it,'' Craig said. "Now it's about taking over A South."

 

Box score

Toms River North 65, Southern 60

Southern (60): Dubois 3 4-4 10, Wejnert 6 8-16 20, Logue 5 0-0 11, Ray 6 0-0 13, Clark 1 1-2 3, Leone 0 0-0 0, Adragnia 0 0-0 0, Valeriani 1 0-0 3. Totals: 17 13-22 60.

TR North (65): Husni 0 0-0 0, Martin 1 0-1 2, Carrington 3 1-4 7, Petrick 0 0-0 0, Storino 0 0-0 0, Blum 0 0-0 0, Nyisztor 5 5-5 16, Thelemaque 2 0-0 6, Marinaccio 4 2-2 10, Craig 11 2-3 24. Totals: 26 10-16 65.

Southern (4-2, 1-1)  11 15 22 12 - 60

TR North (7-0, 2-0)  17 15 20 13 - 65

Three-pointers: (T) Thelemaque 2, Nyisztor; (S) Logue, Ray, Valeriani. Fouled out: None.