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STAFFORD TWP. -- When it comes to varsity experience, Southern lagged behind at least four other Shore Conference Class A South teams coming into the 2022-23 season, including three that finished with a better record than the Rams did a season ago.

Southern does not have the big-time scorer or a highlight factory player that many other teams that have been ranked in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, but with each game, the No. 9 Rams are showing they have advanced chemistry and a winning formula.

After Friday night's stunning comeback, they also now have something much easier to measure: a two-game lead for first place in the A South standings.

After trailing by 16 points late in the second quarter and 13 at halftime to Toms River North, Southern mounted an improbable second-half comeback to bank another impressive A South win -- this time dropping the visiting Mariners, 47-40.

"It was a great comeback win," Southern coach John Pampalone said. "We went into the locker room at halftime and talked about everything we accomplished this year and how that wasn't us out there in the first half. We needed to get back to playing Southern basketball and that's what we did."

Senior Tom Menegus played the role of closer, scoring all 13 of Southern's points in the fourth quarter to finish with a game-high 21 to go with 13 rebounds. The 6-foot-6 forward had four points and four rebounds at halftime before going off for a near-double-double in the second half alone.

"We have a bunch of kids that just want to win and have known each other our whole lives," Menegus said. "We had a talk in the locker room and were like, 'We're better than this team.' We know what we can do, we stuck together and made it happen."

Menegus and the rest of his teammates were a non-factor in the first half, mostly because Toms River North would not allow the ball into the paint and was competitive in contesting it when it did make it that far. In the first half alone, the Mariners forced 11 Southern turnovers, blocked four shots and held the Rams to 13 points in establishing a 26-13 lead.

The lead was 26-10 after an 8-0 run by Toms River North and while Southern only scored three points the rest of the half, the Rams held the Mariners scoreless over the final 3:25 of the second quarter.

From the start of the third, Southern changed the trajectory of the game, digging on defense in its 2-3 zone and playing with more conviction on offense. The Rams earned trips to the free-throw line in each of their first four offensive possessions in the third quarter while drawing fourth fouls on both senior Delani Hyde and junior Tareq Council for Toms River North.

Southern made only five of those eight free-throw attempts to open the half and still trailed 30-18. Senior Max DiPietro then sparked an 8-0 run, during which he scored four points and assisted two other baskets by sophomore Justin Silva and senior Pat Gaffney.

"That's my job, to set the tone," said DiPietro, who is familiar with a significant portion of Toms River North's roster from facing off against the Mariners' 14-0 football team in 2022. "I'm a football player too, so I have played against those guys. You know coming out they are going to be physical and that they are one of the most athletic, if not the most athletic, teams in the entire Shore. If you are going to back down and play soft, you're not going to have a chance and we played soft in the first half."

With under two minutes to go in the third, Southern trailed, 34-26, and went on a game-clinching tear. Junior Caden Schubiger and Gaffney hit threes on back-to-back possessions to tie the game, 34-34, by the end of the quarter and Meneges scored the first eight points of the fourth to thrust Southern into the lead, 42-34. The first two of those points gave Southern its first lead of the game.

The Rams lead hit double-digits on a free throw by Menegus to make it 45-35 and a driving finish by Micah Ford marked the end of an 8:45 stretch of the game in which the Mariners did not make a shot from the field and scored just one point. Between those baskets by junior Owen Baker (in the third) and Ford, Southern outscored Toms River North, 19-1.

"We didn't feel like we played defense in the first half like we normally play," Pampalone said. "The other thing is we wanted to pound the ball inside. We only attempt about 10 or 12 threes a game and we kind of got away from ourselves. We let their athletic ability and their speed dictate what we were doing and we wanted to get back to our brand of basketball."

Gaffney was the only other Southern player to score in double-figures, finishing with 10 points and four assists.

Hyde (11 points), Ford (12) and Baker (15) combined for all 26 of Toms River North's first-half points and all but two of them for the game.

The come-from-behind win gives Southern consecutive division wins over Brick Memorial, Jackson Memorial and Toms River North -- three teams that returned the majority of their scoring and starting lineups from a year ago. Brick Memorial won Class A South last year, Jackson Memorial came in second and Toms River North finished with Southern in a fourth-place tie.

DiPietro is the only player who was a regular starter for Southern last year and was not among the team's top three scorers. Menegus, meanwhile, worked into the lineup as a junior and has taken a significant step forward as one of A South's best big men so far in 2022-23.

Southern now leads all three of Brick Memorial, Jackson Memorial and Toms River North by two games in the Class A South standings with one turn through the division complete. The Rams will host Brick Memorial and travel to play both Toms River North and Jackson Memorial during the second run through the A South schedule.

"Everybody has stepped into their role and it's really just about chemistry," DiPietro said. "I have played youth sports, middle school sports, high school sports and this team probably has the most chemistry and likes playing with each other more than any team I have ever been on. We're able to criticize each other and we take it on the chin and move on."

 

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