BAYVILLE -- An offensive rut was the source of the Central Regional boys basketball team's three losses before the calendar flipped to 2024 -- one of which was a one-point defeat at the hands of Toms River North in which the Golden Eagles failed to reach 40 points.

Throughout the offensive struggles, however, Central continued to showcase a hounding defense that helped the Golden Eagles minimize the damage while the offense caught.

So, when the rematch with Toms River North started with Central ripping off nine straight points to open the game, it marked the beginning of an offensive breakout that made the Golden Eagles too tough to keep up with, even for the No. 4 ranked team in the Shore Sports Network Shore 16 rankings.

Junior Jaycen Santucci and senior Miles Chevalier each scored 23 points and No. 11 Central raced to a 64-49 win over the Mariners Friday to improve to 4-0 in New Year.

"Our energy has been through the roof," Santucci said. "During our slow start, I think the energy was good, but we have taken it up a level and we’re playing with confidence now."

Santucci and Chevalier combined on a 9-0 run to open the game and Toms River North never got closer than a five-point deficit the rest of the way. It was a much different outcome than what transpired in the first meeting on Dec. 28, when Toms River North defeated Central, 40-39, in the WOBM Christmas Classic semifinals at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena.

"We definitely knew we were coming as soon as we saw this game on our calendar," Santucci said. "Our defense was good in the first game. It was a one-score game. That was the biggest thing we took away from that game. We just needed to be a little bit better on offense."

Toms River North settled in after falling behind 9-0 and cut the deficit to 11-6 by the end of the first quarter, but Santucci hit his third three-pointer of the half early in the second quarter to jumpstart an 18-point quarter for the Golden Eagles. Chevalier hit a three that kicked off a 9-2 run that gave Central a 25-13 lead, with senior Jordan Barbot contributing four points and an assist to that run.

The Mariners pulled to within five as time expired in the first half, but a technical foul after the final buzzer on senior Jeremiah Pruitt sent Chevalier to the foul line for two shots. The senior sank both attempts and Central led, 29-22, at half.

Central's lead stayed in the single-digits for most of the third quarter and a layup by senior Sean Irby-Gathers pulled Toms River North within 38-33 with 2:12 left in the quarter. The Golden Eagles then finished with an 8-2 spurt, including two threes by Chevalier.

In the last 15 seconds of the quarter, Chevalier hit a three from the right wing and Santucci stole a crosscourt pass near midcourt and took it in for a layup just before the buzzer, making it a 46-35 Central lead heading to the fourth quarter.

Santucci finished with six rebounds and four of Central's 16 steals as a team, while Chevalier had two steals to go with his 23 points, five rebounds and three assists. Junior Jayson King led the defensive effort with six steals while also tallying seven points and five rebounds and junior Royalty Riley posted six points and four steals.

"All of our offense comes from our defense," Santucci said. "When we can get out in transition, we’re so good as a team and it fuels our offense in the half court."

Pruitt (10 points) gave Toms River North some life to start the fourth quarter with a three-point play on the first possession, but Santucci immediately answered with one of his own on the other end. After grabbing an offensive rebound and getting to the left elbow, Santucci pump-faked Toms River North senior Tareq Council off his feet and he came down on Santucci's back. Santucci managed to get up a shot and it bounced around the rim and in as Santucci hit the floor.

Senior Micah Ford (team-high 12 points) had a chance to cut the deficit back to seven, but missed a breakaway layup that Central turned into a layup for Riley on the other end -- a four-point swing that put the Golden Eagles ahead, 51-40. Toms River North pushed the ball after giving up the layup and another drive by Ford rimmed out and Council's putback-dunk attempt clanged off the back rim.

The long rebound released Central on the break and Santucci hit Chevalier with a lob at the rim that Chevalier laid in for a 53-40 lead with 5:45 to go -- the largest of the game to that point.

"We were winning that first game (vs. Toms River North) for most of the game and then we let it get away in the fourth quarter," Chevalier said. "I think that really helped us today because we didn’t take any possessions off. We didn’t want to let them back in the game."

A technical foul on King set Toms River North up for a three-point possession that got the Mariners back within 10, 55-45, but Santucci immediately answered with a drive to the basket that proved to be the clincher. The Golden Eagles went 5-for-6 from the free-throw line in the final two minutes to seal it.

In seven games prior to the turn of the calendar to 2024, Central went 4-3 and cracked 50 points three times -- one of which was a 74-72, quadruple-overtime win at Southern in which Central had 45 points through 4 quarters. In two of Central's three losses, it failed to reach 40 points.

"We knew those games shouldn’t have been losses, so that has really pushed us to keep working," Chevalier said. "We knew we could play a lot better and we were still close to beating some good teams."

Since the ball dropped in Times Square, the ball has started dropping through the hoop for the Golden Eagles. They 4-for-4 reaching 50 points, are averaging 57.5 points and are 4-0 against four teams ranked in the most recent SSN Shore 16 (Ranney, Toms River South, Donovan Catholic and Toms River North).

"It always starts with our defense," Santucci said. "But the biggest thing for us on offense is, when we move the ball, we’re a great team. When we are moving it to all parts of the floor and hitting our cutters, we’re a great team."

Whether it was during the seven-game struggle to start the season or the current four-game surge, Central's defense has never floundered. Setting aside the quadruple-overtime win at Southern, the Golden Eagles are allowing 40.6 points per game, including holding a hot Toms River South team to 23 points on the road.

"Defense it our main priority," Chevalier said. "It’s like 80 percent defense and the rest is offense and a lot of that comes off of our defense."

Last year's Central team found its groove in time to reach the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals as a No. 12 seed, followed by a strong showing in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV Tournament. With much of the core from that team back, the Golden Eagles know the important part of the season is still to come and their current trajectory suggests they will be ready when it arrives.

"All those experiences we have been through together have taught us a lot," Santucci said. "We have grown a lot together and now we’re coming."

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