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TOMS RIVER - Most teams that have to play the Marlboro boys basketball team have to figure out how to slow down the high-octane, run-and-gun Mustangs.

Toms River North, however, tries to go even faster.

Just as they did back in December, the Mariners welcomed the high-speed, full-court style on Sunday at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena and countered it like no team can - and, possibly, like no team in the Shore Conference Tournament ever has.

Toms River North - the No. 3 seed in the SCT - exploded for well over 100 points in a resounding, 114-85, win over No. 6 Marlboro to reach the SCT semifinals for the fourth time in six years and first time since 2017.

Toms River North senior Najae Hallenbeck blocks a shot by Marlboro junior Aleksy Friedman. (Photo by Ray Richardson)
Toms River North senior Najae Hallenbeck blocks a shot by Marlboro junior Aleksy Friedman. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Seniors Najae Hallenbeck, Jakari Spence and Colin Baker led the outburst by scoring over 20 points apiece in all-around performances. Hallenbeck led the way with 29 points and 17 rebounds, Spence posted 21 points and 15 assists and Baker poured in 24 points to go with six assists.

"That's their forte - they just run up and down all game," Baker said of Marlboro. "I think we were prepared to hang in with them and just keep matching them."

Sophomore Jaiden Fraser also turned in a career effort with 19 points and six assists off the bench for Toms River North, giving the Mariners four players with 19 points or better on Sunday.

Hallenbeck went off for 21 points and nine rebounds in the first half to stake the Mariners to a 61-45 lead on the Shore's highest-scoring team on a per-game basis. Spence, meanwhile, racked up 10 assists before the halftime buzzer to go with 17 points.

"It shows teams can't just come out and try to run on us and hope they can beat us down the court," said Hallenbeck, who shot 14-for-16 from the field Sunday. "I am so glad I got these guys coming out and getting me involved early and keep going to me down in the paint.

"Watching Marlboro, they are a really good team and a really fast team, but they're also a smaller team so I knew they weren't going to be able to stop me in the paint once I got position and these guys got me the ball."

The 15 assists by Spence set a career-high and marked the seventh time this season the Shore Conference assist leader has recorded more than 10 in a game. Spence is also two games removed from his first career triple-double.

Toms River North senior Jakari Spence. (Photo by Ray Richardson)
Toms River North senior Jakari Spence defended by Marlboro sophomore Zack Molod (left) and Jon Spatola (right). (Photo by Ray Richardson)

"I have been trying to grow into that (point guard) role for three years now but I finally started to get it last year and this year I have really grown into it," Spence said. "I just like getting my teammates involved. Most people think, 'Oh, he's not going to be happy if he's not scoring,' but I could have zero and get 20 assists and I'm feeling good. As long as they're having fun, I'm having fun."

For the second time this season, Baker was a major difference-maker for Toms River North against Marlboro. He scored 26 points in the Mariners' 94-81 win back on Dec. 28 in the WOBM Christmas Classic semifinals and just as they did on Sunday, Hallenbeck and Spence also eclipsed 20 points in that win.

"Najae and Jakari are two of the most talented kids in the Shore and it just makes my job so much easier," Baker said. "When I'm open they get me the ball and it's just a matter of being ready to make the shot."

Baker hit three three-pointers during an 11-point first quarter that staked Toms River North to a 29-21 lead.

"I always tell Baker he's my favorite high school player," Spence said. "I love his game. He is always in the right spot and if he ever does make a bad play, I know he is always going to get it back. He may be open on some of those shots, but you still gotta knock those down and those early ones were big for us."

Senior Alex Ratner led Marlboro with a game-high 36 points, while junior Aleksy Friedman added 15, sophomore Jack Seidler chipped in 14 and sophomore Jon Spatola contributed 11 in the loss.

With Sunday's win, Toms River North advances to Thursday's semifinal to face No. 7 Red Bank Catholic - which is not necessarily the team the Mariners expected to see if and when they reached the SCT semifinals.

Since the WOBM Classic, when both teams lost to Manasquan in the final two rounds in the tournament, Toms River North and Middletown South have been battling for supremacy without ever facing off against one another. Toms River North was initially the No. 2 team in the first Shore Sports Network Top 10 in 2020 and was first to crack the Top 20, but Middletown South eclipsed the Mariners for No. 2 at the Shore and jumped up to No. 15 in the state before a 19-game winning streak came to an end Thursday against Mater Dei in the SCT round of 16.

"We thought we had a chance even if they didn't get knocked out," Spence said. "Don't get me wrong, they are a great team, but the way we have been playing is the best basketball we have played since I have been here. We wanted to play them - we weren't dodging anybody. We wanted to play them bad."

Middletown South is the only other team at the Shore to score 100 points in a game this season and it came in a win over Marlboro on Feb. 6 that clinched the Class A North championship.

"I wanted to play Middletown South bad," Hallenbeck said. "We wanted to prove that Toms River North is here to stay."

The two teams can still meet if both win their respective NJSIAA sectional championships - Toms River North in South Jersey Group IV and Middletown South in Central Jersey Group IV - and that hypothetical matchup would be for a spot in the Group IV championship.

For now, however, Toms River North is focused on Red Bank Catholic and trying to reach the SCT final for the first time since 1996. Toms River North has never won the Shore Conference Tournament.

"Mater Dei is a good team, Red Bank Catholic is a good team and everybody here today is a good team," Spence said. "At this part of the tournament, there's nothing but good teams left so we'll have to be ready to keep playing the way we have been playing."


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