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TOMS RIVER - Najae Hallenbeck was only a freshman the last time Toms River North reached the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals prior to Thursday night's SCT semifinal game against Red Bank Catholic and while he doesn't recall every detail of the game, he can remember the impact it had on his older teammates at the time.

Since Rory Caswell took over the program ahead of the 2011-12 season, Toms River North has been the standard in Ocean County basketball but when it comes to winning postseason tournament championships, the Mariners have come up a play or two short at every pass - including that four-point loss to Mater Dei Prep during Hallenbeck's senior year.

On Thursday, Hallenbeck and his teammates made sure a play or two would not keep the Mariners out of the championship game and on Saturday at Monmouth University, they will be looking to finally finish the job.

Toms River North senior Najae Hallenbeck. (Photo by Ray Richardson)
Toms River North senior Najae Hallenbeck. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Hallenbeck scored 20 of his 22 points in the second half and grabbed 13 rebounds to help third-seeded Toms River North pull away with a 60-42 win over No. 7 RBC to reach the SCT championship game for the second time in program history and first time since 1996.

“It was tough to watch (the seniors) walk off after that game,” Hallenbeck said of the Mater Dei loss back in 2017. “We went toe-to-toe against one of the best teams in the state but we didn’t get the job done. Now we’re back and we’re about to get the job done.”

Toms River North's next stop is OceanFirst Bank Center on Saturday for a 7 p.m. tip against top-seeded Manasquan, with the Mariners looking for their first ever SCT championship.

The Mariners have dominated their three opponents in the tournament, but Thursday was the first time Toms River North was in a tight game at halftime. With Hallenbeck limited to two points in the first half, Red Bank Catholic got out of the first half within striking distance at 23-18

"First half, I was a little timid," Hallenbeck said. "I was taking some shots I wasn't supposed to take. After that first bucket in the second half I said, 'You know what? I'm going to take it to them.' And that's exactly what I did."

"For whatever reason, we were a little bit tight," Caswell said. "We definitely missed some shots we normally make. In the first half we didn't play great and at halftime, I told them, 'Look, we're still up by five points.' It wasn't our best game, but the kids made some big plays."

It took the Mariners 19-plus minutes to score their 29th point Thursday, which was their first-quarter total in Sunday's 114-85 quarterfinal win over Marlboro.

"We basically said we were going to play hard-nosed defense, no matter what," Hallenbeck said. "Even though it was an ugly game, we still got the win and we're going to the finals."

Senior Jakari Spence scored nine of his 16 points during the first half and also added six rebounds, six assists and four steals. Sophomore Jaiden Fraser came off the bench to pour in 14 points, giving him 33 points in the last two games serving as the sixth man.

"Jaiden Fraser played unbelievable," Caswell said. "Without him, it would have been a much closer game."

Fraser's contribution Thursday was important for Toms River North with senior Colin Baker saddled with foul trouble. Baker fouled out in just 10 minutes and finished with two points.

"I feel for a kid like Colin who was worked so hard and overcome a lot of injuries to play the way he is playing this year," Caswell said. "He dealt with foul trouble all night and was never really able to get into the game. I'm excited for Saturday because Colin is going to come back, Jakari is going to come back - these are five seniors that pour their heart-and-soul into this team. They had a rough night and we still won by a decent margin."

Senior Mike Vansprang scored only four points, but contributed seven rebounds and five assists to the Mariners cause.

The matchup to watch in the front-end of Thursday's double-header was Hallenbeck vs. Red Bank Catholic senior Kevin Bauman in a battle of football bruisers. Against one of the strongest players in the Shore Conference, the 6-foot-6, 280-pound Hallenbeck went right at Bauman for the first two points of the game, but went silent until the third quarter.

"Coach got on me and told me to stop shooting and to take it to the rack," Hallenbeck said. "In the second half I went right at (Bauman). I had two points in the first half and I ended up with 22."

Bauman also scored two points in the first half but did not heat up in the second the way Hallenbeck did, finishing the game with seven points. Prior to Thursday, Bauman was averaging 22 points per game during RBC's four-game winning streak.

"It felt good going up against a guy my size and with my type of strength," Hallenbeck said. "It felt good going at him, it felt good banging around with somebody, but we were ready. I took him down and I'm ready for whoever is next."

Sophomore Alex Bauman led Red Bank Catholic with 10 points and six rebounds while sophomores Cyril Arvanitis and C.J. Ruoff each added nine in the loss.

In order to capture its first ever SCT title, Toms River North will have to solve Manasquan, which beat the Mariners, 78-63, in the championship game of the WOBM Christmas Classic on Dec. 30. Spence scored 30 points and Hallenbeck posted 20 points and 12 boards, but the Mariners had no answer for senior Alex Galvan (25 points, 15 rebounds and five assists) and sophomore Ben Roy (25 points) and could not find a third scoring source on their side.

"We got to the semis three straight years (from 2015 to 2017) and we never got over that hump," Caswell said. "The last two years, it was the quarterfinals, so this group has kind of grown into it. The same thing happened to us in the state tournament last year when Najae got hurt against Cherokee (in the sectional semifinals) and we should have gone further. They have really built on those experiences and worked hard to take those steps. Now we want to take the next step."


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