By Ella Brockway
SSN Correspondent

RED BANK - After watching his defense give up 22 points in the third quarter and seeing Red Bank senior guard Nasir Williams hit a deep three at the buzzer to cut his team’s lead to one heading into the fourth, Central coach Mike Clemente knew it was time to dig in.

“The way we play defense, there’s no reason we should ever give up 22 points in a quarter,” said Clemente. “We really dug in [after that] and in the fourth, we got consecutive stops, and the guys did a great job putting all of their passion into it.”

Central (4-0) pulled off a 64-53 win over Red Bank (2-2) in the first round of the Albert E. Martin Buc Holiday Classic at Red Bank Regional on Tuesday afternoon.

Central senior Maks Gruszecki. (Photo by Ella Brockway)

Senior guard Maks Gruszecki led the Eagles with 19 points, 10 of which came in the second quarter. Senior Denis Corbin finished with 18 points and 8 rebounds in the win. Gruszecki, Corbin and senior guard Zion Hardy (17) combined for 54 points.

“I thought we all played a good game,” said Corbin. “It’s not just about one of us. It’s a whole team playing together on defense, because defense wins championships, and we came out here to play today.”

Central had a total of nine steals as a group on the defensive end. Zion Hardy led the team with four.

“We had a little bit of a rough start, but once we picked it up we really focused on our defensive effort,” said Clemente. “We got after it, and started to play the best way that we usually play.”

The Bucs started the game off strong, taking an early 12-8 lead after the first quarter. Red Bank junior guard Devin Cooper scored six of his 14 points in the first. But the Eagles came out even stronger in the next quarter and stepped up their defensive game, limiting the Bucs to just six points in the second.

Central outscored Red Bank 19-6 in the second quarter, giving just four points off of foul shots and two on a layup by sophomore forward Dean Hottmann. The Eagles took control on both the offensive and defensive boards late in the quarter: senior forward Anthony Petit-Clair, senior forward Xavier Jackson, and Corbin combined for nine rebounds in the first half, and gave the Eagles the 27-18 lead heading into halftime.

“Denis really got us going from the start when we were struggling a little bit,” said Clemente. “He’s really just a man out there, and we went through him today.”

Central senior Denis Corbin. (Photo by Ella Brockway)

Nasir Williams launched Red Bank’s comeback when he drilled a three on the first possession of the second half. The Eagles punched right back on a three from Zion Hardy less than a minute later. The Bucs cut Central’s lead down to four with 1:37 to go as Williams found his rhythm, scoring 11 of his team-high 21 in the third. Williams shot 5-for-9 from the three-point line, and hit his team’s biggest shot of the day as the quarter ended to bring the Bucs within one of Central heading into the final quarter of play.

The Eagles forced the Bucs to turn the ball over on two five-seconds calls in the fourth quarter, the first at the 3:40 mark as the Bucs had the ball under their own basket, and the second with 1:37 left to play. Xavier Johnson scored all of his eight points in the fourth, and Zion Hardy hit four free throws in the last two minutes of the game to thwart any hopes of a Red Bank comeback and push the Eagles into the next round of the Buc Classic.

“We practice defense every single day, and there’s nothing that’s going to lead to championships but defense,” said Corbin. “Offense comes, but you need defense first.”

The Eagles will face top-seeded Mater Dei Prep in the second round of the tournament on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. at Red Bank Regional. The Bucs will face Freehold Boro in a consolation game at 12:30 p.m.