FREEHOLD TWP. – With Monday's NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship game in the fourth quarter and the scoreboard clock at Freehold Township High School reading 5:06, the capacity crowd of mostly Freehold Township fans rose to its feet for the final five minutes as the Patriots tried to secure their first NJSIAA sectional championship by beating the No. 13 seed in the section.

With most of the gym standing and chanting “Freehold Township” with the Patriots – the No. 2 seed in the section – leading Hillsborough by four, senior Jason Czajkowski thought his team had it. Instead, the Patriots found out over the final five minutes why the Raiders are no ordinary No. 13 seed.

Freehold Township's players and fans react after the final buzzer of Hillsborough's 66-58 win over the Patriots in the Central Jersey Group IV final on Monday. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Hillsborough senior Rob Askes hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with a little under three minutes left and hit 7-of-8 free throw attempts in the last two minutes to help the Raiders rally past Freehold Township and claim their first sectional title in program history with a 66-58 win.

“I thought we had it,” Czajkowski said. “Our fans were into it, the atmosphere was amazing, and we were riding high, feeling like we were going to close it out. We just weren’t able to execute and to Hillsborough’s credit, they hit the big shots and we weren’t able to.”

Hillsborough closed the game on a 16-4 run over the final 5:06 to cap its comeback and a run through the Central Jersey Group IV bracket that included road wins over four Freehold Regional District teams from the Shore Conference Class A North – Manalapan, Howell, Marlboro and Freehold Township.

“They’re a tough team that plays in a tough conference,” Freehold Township coach Brian Golub said. “They play teams like Ridge and Immaculata and that puts them in a hole with their record, but then when they get to the tournament, they are battle-tested. They got beat up during the regular season, but they basically just ran through (Class) A North to win a sectional title.”

Czajkowski finished with 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting, including 5-for-7 from behind the three-point arc. The last of his five three-pointers was a running three as time expired in the third quarter that gave the Patriots a 46-44 lead heading into the fourth. Czajkowski also pulled down seven rebounds in the loss.

“Jason had a tremendous tournament,” Golub said of Czajkowski, who switched from jersey No. 10 to his twin brother Kyle’s No. 20 for the tournament after Kyle suffered a season-ending wrist injury. “We were waiting for him to really come alive this year and start scoring the ball. He’s so unselfish and his focus is totally on the team, but when Kyle went down, he thought he needed to step up his game and that’s what he did.”

The Raiders took the lead early in the fourth on a four-point possession that involved a basket-plus-the-foul by senior Joe Suseck and a follow by Askes on the missed free throw. The two teams then traded baskets to leave Hillsborough up 50-48 before Freehold Township went on a 6-0 run to grab a 54-50 lead. Facendo hit two free throws to tie the game at 50, Czajkowski hit a jumper in transition to give the Patriots a two-point lead and Facendo buried a step-back jumper with 5:06 left to give Freehold Township a 54-50 lead and force the Raiders to use a timeout.

Freehold Township stopped Hillsborough on its first two possessions out of the timeout, but could not extend the lead. Suseck cut the Patriots' lead to two with a post move on the left block, and on the next Raiders possession, Suseck kicked a pass out to Askes on the left wing, where he let fly the go-ahead three, the final go-ahead shot of the game.

“We’ve built such great team chemistry and we’ve really grown to love playing in front of a road crowd,” Askes said. “Our fans have followed us and shown us a lot of support, but we love when the gym is loud, regardless of who they are cheering for.”

“We like shutting up a crowd more than we like to make them cheer,” Suseck said. “We’ve got a bunch of winners in our locker room and in the last two minutes of a close game, there is no team I’d take over us.”

Hillsborough shot 11-for-12 from the line as a team in the final two minutes, with Askes accounting for a 7-for-8 chunk. The Raiders shot just 8-for-15 from the line during the first three quarters.

Freehold Township appeared poised to land the knockout blow on a number of occasions, but a Hillsborough bunch that has survived three previous hostile environments during this tournament did not break. Czajkowski scored nine unanswered points on three 3-pointers during the second quarter to turn an 18-18 tie into a 27-18 Patriots' lead.

The Raiders, however, closed the half on an 11-3 run and pulled to within 30-29 at halftime. Czajkowski and senior Tyree Wilson combined for 24 of Freehold Township’s 30 first-half points, with Wilson adding eight to Czajkowski’s 16. Czajkowski did not miss in the first half, shooting a perfect 6-for-6 from the field and 4-for-4 from behind the arc.

Early in the third quarter junior Nick Facendo (14 points on Monday) and Wilson (13 points) each converted a three-point play on consecutive possessions to push Freehold Township’s lead to 37-32. Once again, though, Hillsborough had an answer and this time, the Raiders surged in front, 39-37, with a 7-0 run.

“There was no doubt that they were going to keep coming back on us,” Golub said. “I watched a whole lot of tape on them and with five guys who can shoot the ball, they are never out of the game, and they proved that this tournament. We knew we were going to have to keep at it for the full 32 minutes and unfortunately, we just didn’t make shots down the stretch.”

Hillsborough hit seven three-pointers Monday – the most the Raiders have made in any game during their tournament run – and shot 39 percent (7-for-18) from behind the arc. They also controlled the glass against Freehold Township, owning a 13-4 advantage in offensive rebounds, including 10-2 in the second half.

“It was definitely a challenge to guard them because they do have five guys who you have to be aware of as shooters and at the same time, they have some size and they work really hard on the glass,” Czajkowski said. “You get stretched out trying to guard their outside shooters and you can sometimes lose some of the advantage in the paint trying to rebound.”

The Raiders will look to continue their march through the postseason Wednesday against South Jersey Group IV champion Cherry Hill East, scheduled to tip at 5:30 p.m. at Egg Harbor Township High School. Hillsborough will try to build on its first sectional championship, which comes a year after its Somerset County Tournament title with five starters who did not return this season.

“We saw those five seniors win the county tournament last year while we were bench players, and we wanted to have our moment now that it was our turn to start,” Askes said. “We didn’t get it done in the county tournament and we weren’t able to have the kind of regular season we wanted, but we still had a chance to make history as the first team to win a state sectional title, and we’re really proud we were able to do it.”

Monday’s loss is the fifth in four trips to the sectional finals for Freehold Township in the history of the program and this most recent was the first of the five to take place on the Patriots’ home court. While Freehold Township fell short of the first sectional title in school history, this year’s team finished as one of only three teams in program history to win at least 20 games (21-7), according to Golub.

“Now that it’s done and I can take a deep breath, I’m really going to enjoy this group of kids,” Golub said. “They are special kids.”

“It was an honor just to play in front of these crowds and be a part of athletics here at Freehold Township, not just in basketball but in soccer and track,” said Czajkowski, who along with his brother, Facendo and fellow senior Mike Staklinski also helped Freehold Township win a Shore Conference Tournament championship in soccer this past fall.

“We didn’t get the championship we wanted and this is a difficult feeling to overcome right now, but I think when we look back at these games we played in this gym in front of the school and the community, I think we’ll have really positive memories about the whole thing.”

 

Box Score

Hillsborough 66, Freehold Township 58

1

2

3

4

F

Hillsborough (15-12)

13

16

15

22

66

Freehold Twp. (21-7)

13

17

16

12

58

 

Hillsborough (66): Dylan Finer 1 2-3 5, Mike Reilly 4 2-2 12, Joe Suseck 5 2-6 12, Rob Askes 5 10-12 23, Mike DeCiccio 3 3-4 10, Jimmy Suseck 2 0-0 4, John Clifford 0 0-0 0, Kyle Jeney 0 0-0 0. Totals: 20 19-27  66

Three-pointers: Finer, Reilly 2, Askes 3, DeCiccio

Fouled Out: Joe Suseck

Freehold Twp. (58): Nick Facendo 5 3-3 14, Jason Czajkowski 8 0-1 21, A.J. Hardy 0 1-2 1, Dan Saunders 2 3-4 7, Tyree Wilson 6 1-4 13, Mike Staklinski 0 0-0 0, John Carroll 1 0-0 2, C.J. Stenftennagel 0 0-0 0, Brandon Tajfel 0 0-0 0, Terrence Burdge 0 0-0 0. Totals: 22 8-14 58

Three-pointers: Facendo, Czajkowski 5

Fouled Out: Wilson