FREEHOLD TWP. - It is never unusual to look at the Shore Conference standings and see Freehold Township sitting atop all of the Class A North public school teams, and in that sense, this year's Patriots team is nothing out of the ordinary.

On the other hand, only one starter and one other regular off the bench returned from last year's NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV runner-up team that won 21 games, and yet this year's team still finds itself on a similar pace to the senior-laden squad of a year ago following another big divisional win on Thursday.

Senior point guard Nick Facendo - the lone returning starter from a year ago - scored 15 of his game-high 24 points in the fourth quarter while grabbing six rebounds and handing out 10 assists as Freehold Township - the No. 7 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - pulled away for a 75-63 home win over Middletown North.

Freehold Township senior Nick Facendo scored 24 points and dished out 10 assists Thursday vs. Middletown North (Photo by Matt Manley)

With the win, Freehold Township extended its lead over Middletown North to two games in the loss column in the Class A North Public Division title race, while remaining a game up on Marlboro in the loss column. The Patriots are currently two games behind Christian Brothers Academy in the overall A North standings.

Senior John Carroll added 22 points and 12 rebounds for Freehold Township, which took control of the game during a mid-third-quarter run. Trailing 40-36, The Patriots outscored the Lions 16-5 over the final five minutes of the quarter to take a 52-45 lead into the final quarter.

"I'm all about defense and that's basically the only thing we talked about at halftime," Freehold Township coach Brian Golub said. "We had 35 points at halftime and we were down. Usually, if we have 30-some-odd points at half, we're up by 10 or 12 points. To the kids' credit, they played defense in the second half."

Junior Bobby Weise gave Freehold Township the lead with two of his three three-pointers in the third quarter, which came on consecutive possessions and gave the Patriots a 42-40 lead. Weise then found Carroll underneath for a layup to make the score 44-40, capping an 8-0 spurt.

Carroll turned in a balanced scoring effort, scoring five points each in the first and second quarters and six each in the third and fourth quarter. His 12 rebounds actually fell two shy of his season average entering the game. The 6-foot-5 senior was one of several key players off the bench for the Patriots last year and has thrived in a starting role.

"John Carroll is a double-double machine," Golub said. "He's averaging 14 boards a game and I know people look at that and go, 'Really?' No, really. That's for real. He's had three games with over 20 and it's really just been a matter of him building upon what he did off the bench last year now that he's playing starter minutes."

The Patriots led by as many as 15 in the fourth quarter, with Facendo breaking out by getting to the basket against Middletown North's defense - which extended to try to pressure Freehold Township into turning the ball over.

Facendo hit three of his first five three-point attempts in the game, but missed his next six shots, including five straight three-point attempts. In the fourth quarter, he scored two of his three two-point field goals in the paint and shot 9-for-10 from the free-throw line.

"I think he knows he has to be more aggressive this year and carry more of the load," Golub said of Facendo. "The good thing for us, I think, is that the rest of these guys were our practice dummies last year and they practiced against that team and were able to pick up how to play against good competition every day in practice and also how to play with a point guard like Nick."

Weise finished with 14 points, including 4-for-6 shooting from behind the three-point line. The jnior guard also hauled in five rebounds. Junior Ryan Zyskowski also added nine points for Freehold Township.

Middletown North shot its way to a 37-35 halftime lead behind 6-for-15 shooting from three-point range in the half. Freshman Rob Higgins scored nine of his team-high 17 points in the first half and senior Colin Frawley netted eight of his 13 in the first half, including a pair of triples. Junior Marc Cerbo also hit two three-pointers in the final two minutes of the first half and hit three in the game in a 12-point effort.

The Lions shot the three even more in the second half, but went just 4-for-18 from behind the arc after halftime to finish 10-for-33 (30.3 percent) for the game. Freehold Township, meanwhile, shot 8-for-18 (44 percent) from three-point range for the game.

At 10-5 overall with a 6-2 mark in Class A Central, Freehold Township is just a game off of its pace last season. Last year's team also had wins over both eventual Shore Conference Tournament finalists - CBA and Rumson-Fair Haven - but this year's group has suffered three of its losses to teams ranked in the Shore Sports Network Top five  - No. 1 CBA, No. 3 Rumson and No. 5 Toms River North. The Patriots also dropped the first meeting against Middletown North on the road.

"Our goal was to be competitive in the first half, get better and start winning these quality games in the second half," Golub said. "We have some quality wins, but we still have a long way to go and it's all on the defensive end. Offensively, we're scoring the ball at a decent enough pace.

"As compared to last year: it's two totally different ball clubs. We do our best here to continue to build on a little bit of a tradition that we've built. Kids buy into what we ask them to do. They play hard all the time and they never quit and that's all we want from them."