MANAHAWKIN, NJ. -- The fresh season continues to produce high expectations for the Central Regional boys basketball team and as expectations remain high, the identity is still being created for this program.

While Tuesday's quadruple-overtime matchup against Southern Regional was nothing short of a team effort, junior Jaycen Santucci played the role of hero from start to finish.

Santucci scored 22 of his career-high 31 points after halftime Tuesday to go with 12 rebounds, three assists, three steals and three blocks and hit the three-pointer that started off the overtime madness. When it was finally over, Central -- ranked No. 3 in the Shore Sports Network Shore 16 rankings -- escaped Manahawkin with an epic, 74-72 win over No. 14 Southern.

From the jump, the Golden Eagles knew they would have their hands full. Southern got off to a strong start after sophomore Jake Sliwinski scored five consecutive out of the gate. A Rams free throw followed by a three-pointer from junior Cooper Dempsey gave Southern an early 9-0 advantage.

"Knew from the jump it was going to be a battle," Central coach Mike Clemente said. "We knew from tip that this wasn't going to just come to us. Obviously, after Marlboro and then Lawrence, I just wanted the guys to continue playing the way we're capable of."

For the majority of the first quarter, the Rams controlled the tempo and the pace of play, which established a 16-7 deficit for the Golden Eagles. Santucci's day started early though, with the junior scoring five of Central's seven first quarter points.

"We were able to move the ball around pretty well," Santucci said in regards to teammates finding him with open shots. "We haven't been at our best yet, but the chemistry's really building along. It's been awesome with these guys and we're still figuring everything out to be honest."

The pace and tempo continued to be dictated by the Rams to open up the second quarter. After a couple of exchanges by both Central and Southern, junior Rich Flores drained an open three-pointer to give Southern its biggest lead of the game at 21-11. Clemente called timeout and focused on making the subtle in-game adjustments for Central to run with.

"Oh that was huge for us," Clemente said. "I really just told them what needed to be done on both sides of the ball. We needed to clean it up early, which I'm really proud of my guys for being able to do."

Entering halftime, Central chopped the lead to six, but Southern continued to play impressive basketball. Sliwinski led the Rams with nine points and four rebounds while Central's Santucci entered the locker room with seven points.

The chemistry started to shine throughout the third as Central came out of the locker room hot on a 7-0 run, grabbing its first lead at 27-26.

That lead quickly was taken back by Southern as Sliwinski continued to slither and slide inside for strong takes to the basket. After wiping out the 10-point first-half deficit to take the lead, the Golden Eagles found themselves again trailing, 38-29.

"First couple of games, we weren't playing our typical Central basketball," Santucci said. "But second half today, man. We were finding our guys open, big play after big play. That's what we're used to doing on the court."

Central's defense came out strong to start the fourth quarter, forcing back-to-back turnovers on Southern and making it a 38-35 game. With 3:47 left in the fourth, Santucci really started to take over. His team put the ball in his hands on back-to-back possessions and Santucci drove strong to the hole to give himself tying and go-ahead buckets.

The sophomore Sliwinski (19 points, seven rebounds) played his heart out from start to finish for the Rams, getting inside twice to give Southern back the lead at 42-39. With under 40 seconds to play, the Rams controlled their own destiny and were fouled. After Southern made one of two at the line, Santucci had the ball back in his hands and drilled a three-pointer for Central to make it a one-point game with 18.6 seconds to play.

Central sent Sliwinski back to the free-throw line with 10.8 seconds to play and the sophomore came up clutch, making both and giving Southern a three-point advantage.

Then, mayhem.

With under five seconds left, Santucci found himself with just enough space and delivered a ridiculous three-pointer to send Central and Southern into overtime.

"That's all the guys out there," Santucci said. "Being able to find space, set things up the way we want, credit to everybody out there."

Senior Miles Chevalier opened overtime up with a strong take, giving Central the 47-45 advantage. Freshman Noah Perna made one of two free throws before senior Brayden Lowden followed up by making one at the line for Central.

Perna came through with the first of multiple clutch shots during quadruple-overtime when he drove the lane for the tying layup with 15 seconds left in overtime No. 1. Central failed to convert on the other end and Tuesday's anticipated December affair continued into double-overtime.

Chevalier continued his strong performance (15 points, 10 rebounds, three steals, three blocks) with an and-one basket to start double-OT. Senior Caden Schubiger found himself open and tied it up with a three for Southern.

After a takeaway and free throw by Sliwinski, Central once again fed the ball to Santucci and he barreled through defenders to make a tough bucket. Senior Leo Crowley put the Rams back up by three away on a strong finish with just under a minute to play.

Dempsey then went the line with Southern up by one and made one of two, placing the pressure on Central to once again score on its final possession.

Santucci once again came through in a clutch moment, passing the ball to Chevalier, who dribbled by a defender and and laid it in to send the game to a third overtime.

The mayhem carried over as Southern took more than a minute off the clock to start the fresh overtime. After calling timeout, the Rams found Crowley down low for an easy layup. The Rams then took advantage of an awry pass by Central, allowing Perna to score, expanding the lead to 61-57 with two minutes to play.

Central, as it had done all game long, continued to respond with strong possessions. Following a Santucci basket, senior Jordan Barbot found himself open and drilled a three-pointer to reclaim the lead.

Perna then earned another trip to the line for Southern and hit both free throws to give the Rams back the lead, 63-62 with 43 seconds to play.

Another free throw by Perna had the Rams up two before junior Devont King-Riley hit an an immaculate fadeaway and-one, giving Central a one-point lead with under 20 seconds to play after the made free throw.

Two more free throws gave the Golden Eagles a three-point advantage before the madness only got crazier.

Southern isolated Perna and the freshman stepped up behind the arc, delivering the biggest shot of his young high-school career -- a three-pointer that tied the game with four seconds left. Quadruple-overtime at 67-67 was only right for this insane matchup.

Perna finished with a team-high 21 points and also grabbed nine rebounds.

Central started off with four straight thanks to Santucci. Flores then sank a three for the Rams to bring them back within one. King-Riley found himself back at the line, making back-to-back free throws.

After another make at the line by Central, Perna dribbled back up the court and came away with another physical and-one, sending him to the line down two. Perna missed the free throw, but the ball deflected off of Central, giving Southern an opportunity to tie it up with under 15 seconds to play.

Central brought pressure and with under five seconds to play, the Golden Eagles forced a turnover and threw the ball all the way to the other end of the court to run out the clock.

While Central came into Tuesday as one of the marquee threats within the Shore Conference, the team is still figuring out how far it can go this year. While having bona fide All-Shore talents in Chevalier and Santucci can carry this team to history, it's the presence of the entire rotation Clemente's group possesses. Smothering defense mixed with gritty offense is the formula for success throughout.

"Those are the type of games that really can get your season going," Clemente said. "Again, that's a heck of a team over there and tonight was one of those games that you won't forget. Really proud of the guys and it's really something to come away with this one."

"Still really processing this one," Santucci said. "This was an all-around team effort and it's one that'll have us moving in the right direction."

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