TOMS RIVER – Thursday night’s Class A South showdown featuring Southern and Toms River South was a match-up of opposites between the Indians’ dynamic backcourt and the Rams’ size and athleticism in the paint.

Score one for the big guys.

Behind a game-high 21 points and 11 rebounds by 6-foot-6 senior forward Mike Gesicki and a defense that forced Toms River South into 30 percent shooting (17-for-56) from the field, Southern overcame 22 turnovers to pick up a 49-46 win over the Indians (7-3, 3-2) in Class A South. Six-foot-six junior forward Jake Logue added 11 points, including two big fourth-quarter free throws, to help the Rams (5-2, 3-1) remain tied for first in the division in the loss column with Jackson Memorial after suffering their first divisional defeat on Monday.

Senior Mike Gesicki (in black) had a game-high 21 points and 11 rebounds to help Southern pick up a big 49-46 win on the road over Toms River South in Class A South.
Senior Mike Gesicki (in black) had a game-high 21 points and 11 rebounds to help Southern pick up a big 49-46 win on the road over Toms River South in Class A South.

“This division is up for grabs,’’ Gesicki said. “Whoever wants it most will get it. The talent is so equivalent, and the teams are so equivalent, so it’s all about heart and how hard you are going to play.”

The tandem of Gesicki, a Penn State football recruit, and Logue helped bring home the win by combining for eight of Southern’s 15 points in the fourth quarter. They were able to get what they wanted inside at crucial junctures against an Indians team whose tallest player is 6-foot-3.

“It’s great guard play vs. size and athleticism inside,’’ said Southern coach Eric Fierro. “We’ve been running that Kansas two-game offense with our big man (6-foot-5 Eric Ray) with Mike and moved to Jake to a wing spot, and we got that going tonight.”

Defensively, the Rams held the explosive guard trio of senior Marquis Davis and juniors Tymere Berry and Khaleel Greene to a combined 13-for-41 shooting performance from the field and kept them off the foul line, as they combined to go 5-for-7 from the charity stripe. Berry led the Indians with 16 points, Davis added 12, and forward Tyler Fall chipped in with 10.

“We are complete opposite teams,’’ Gesicki said. “They’re all little fast guards, and I’m big and out of shape and trying to get up the court. Our guards played phenomenal on their guards. Ethan (Dubois) and Zac (Halliday) and Rob (Yaiser) and Logan (Sheehan), everybody that stepped in played great defense.”

Southern withstood an initial burst by Toms River South, which led 20-10 early in the second quarter in front of a roaring home crowd that included former Indians star and current Cincinnati Reds third baseman Todd Frazier. Berry had eight of his 16 points during that opening strike.

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“We survived their opening run, and then it was our turn to make a run,’’ Fierro said. “They’re not hot all the time. They get up and down, and when they get crazy, they try to calm them down and run some sets, and we were ready for that.”

“They came out and they took it to us, but we got it to six at the half, made it manageable down by one in the fourth and then finished it,’’ Gesicki said.

Despite only registering one second-quarter field goal, a three-pointer by Gesicki, and turning the ball over nine times in the second period, the Rams were able to cut the lead to 26-20 at the half. The Indians shot 3-for-11 from the field in the second quarter and had four turnovers of their own to keep Southern in striking distance. Southern had 20 less shot attempts than Toms River South in the game because of turnovers, but still found a way by going 17-for-22 from the foul line compared to only seven attempts for the Indians.

“They’re so explosive and athletic that it’s hard not to play an arm’s length off them and force them to hit those threes,’’ Fierro said. “We said at halftime, ‘Let’s press them, not give up any contested threes and give up contested twos, make Michael (Gesicki) adjust their shots in the paint, and we need five guys crashing the defensive boards.’”

The Rams began the third quarter on an 8-0 run to take their first lead of the game, 28-26, on a runner by Dubois with five minutes left in the period. Toms River South recovered to take the lead back on a nasty crossover and reverse finish by Berry and a pair of free throws by Greene for a 35-31 advantage. However, Gesicki answered with a thunderous dunk and a foul off a nice dish by Halliday to trim the lead to 35-34 heading into the fourth quarter.

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A bucket by Fall helped Toms River South inch ahead 40-36 early in the fourth quarter, but Sheehan answered with a crucial 3-pointer from the left wing for his only bucket of the game to trim the lead back to one with 5:25 remaining.

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Southern took the lead for good when Gesicki sealed his man on a post-up and scored inside for a 43-42 advantage with 2:17 to go.

“That’s not just pounding it into Mike, that’s some ball-screening and some action on the outside that we’ve been working really, really hard at,’’ Fierro said. “I thought we got good movement, and we really worked hard in practice the last couple of days on our angles of entry, and I thought we recognized, entered it, and Michael did a nice job of sealing guys off inside.”

After Southern came up with a stop when the Indians missed a contested 3-pointer, Dubois made a pair of free throws for a five-point lead with 1:24 remaining. The Rams came up with another stop following another errant 3-pointer, and then Gesicki made the play that all but sealed the win. Dubois was at the line for a one-and-one, and Gesicki jumped over an Indians defender to rebound a miss and put it back in for a 47-42 lead with 21.9 seconds left.

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“We needed a play like that,’’ Fierro said.

Logue then officially iced the victory with a pair of foul shots with 10.9 seconds left for a six-point lead. It marked a bounceback win for the Rams after suffering an overtime loss at Brick Memorial on Monday.

“In the second half, we ran our stuff and Jake Logue stepped up bigtime,’’ Gesicki said. “He had a tough shooting night on Monday, but he had a great night tonight and hit those two clutch free throws at the end.”

The victory kept the Rams right in the hunt in a division that has shown that on any given night, any team can win.

“We know we’re going to be a tough out in the tournaments, but we’re fighting our tails off for this division title first because we want to get some home games down the stretch,’’ Fierro said. “No one wants to play Southern in a tournament. I just kind of have that feeling.”


Box score

Southern 49, Toms River South 46

Southern (49): Gesicki 7 6-10 21, Logue 3 5-5 11, Ray 0 4-4 4, Dubois 2 2-3 6, Furlong 0 0-0 0, Yaiser 1 0-0 2, Halliday 1 0-0 2, Sheehan 1 0-0 3. Totals: 15 17-22 49.

TR South (46): Berry 6 1-2 16, Davis 4 2-3 12, Greene 3 2-2 8, Hearn 0 0-0 0, Hart 0 0-0 0, Fall 4 2-2 10. Totals: 17 7-9 46.

Southern (5-2, 3-1)  10 10 14 15 - 49

TR South (7-3, 3-2)   17  9   9  11 – 46

Three-pointers: (T) Berry 3, Davis 2; (S) Gesicki, Sheehan. Fouled out:  None.

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