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FREEHOLD TWP. – The Freehold Township boys basketball team won 20 games prior to Saturday’s NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV semifinal game against Colts Neck behind a full-court pressure defense that turned the game into a full-court sprint.

Rather than play to that style against third-seeded Colts Neck, the Patriots embraced the half-court and showed that they don’t just play good full-court pressure defense – they simply play good defense, period.

Even without running its usual dose of traps out of it full-court pressure, Freehold Township shut down the Cougars, 53-40, and advanced to its fifth NJSIAA sectional final in history and first since 2009. The No. 2 seed Patriots will host No. 13 Hillsborough Monday at 7 p.m. in search of the program’s first NJSIAA sectional championship.

Nick Facendo (left) swarmed Chris O'Reilly and the rest of Colts Neck's guards during Saturday's Central Jersey Group IV semifinal. (Photo by Larry Murphy, Sports Pix NJ)

“We respect them so much and we know how they handle our press that we didn’t throw a lot of traps at them today,” Freehold Township coach Brian Golub said. “We just tried to go man-to-man straight up, get stops and rebound the ball, and it worked pretty well for us. They’ve spread us out so well in the past and hurt us off the double (teams) that we just put the doubles away.”

On an afternoon in which Freehold Township’s top scorer – senior Tyree Wilson – made one shot from the floor, the Patriots relied on their defense to push them back into the sectional final. Colt Neck shot only 1-for-17 from three-point range and that was after Cougars junior Lloyd Daniels hit the first three-point attempt of the game. The Cougars shot 17-for-49 (34.7 percent) for the game and hurt their cause by shooting just 5-for-15 from the free-throw line.

“Defending the three-point line was really our number one focus in our defensive game-plan,” senior Dan Saunders said. “Colts Neck has a lot of weapons and a lot of ways they can beat you so we had to contain their shooters, contain their drives, and we didn’t want any one of their guys to get hot. They can be a streaky shooting team, and if they get going, you could be in trouble.”

Seniors Jason Czajkowski and Mike Staklinski drew the assignment of guarding Colts Neck leading scorer Chris O’Reilly. Against the Patriots’ tandem, O’Reilly scored nine points on 4-for-15 shooting while also shouldering the ball-handling responsibilities.

“One thing we talked about was they have great shooters and great scorers, but they’re not great three-point shooters,” Czajkowski said. “We still wanted to limit the amount of space we gave them at the three-point line, but we thought as long as we didn’t allow penetration and contested their shots, we could make them uncomfortable. That was the game-plan more than anything – to make their shooters uncomfortable.”

Czajkowski led Freehold Township with a game-high 15 points and Saunders added 11 points and six rebounds, including a key elbow jumper that gave Freehold Township a 44-36 lead with 2:55 left – the largest lead of the game to that point.

“I remember being in the huddle during a timeout right before that possession and coach (Golub) told us, ‘If you’re open, take the shot,’” Saunders said. “We were still at a stage in the game where we couldn’t be satisfied with the lead we had, and if there was a chance to get a basket by hitting a shot, then we had to take it.”

“Because of the (wrist) injury to Kyle (Czajkowski), Danny has had to move into more of a shooter's role and he has been great so far,” Golub said. “He took a really ugly-looking three early in the game and when he looked over to the bench I told him, ‘When you get that shot again, shoot it again.’”

Although he shot only 1-for-7 from the floor, Wilson still contributed eight points behind a 6-for-6 game at the free-throw line, as well as six rebounds and five assists. The Patriots also advanced despite a quiet game from junior point guard Nick Facendo (two points) thanks to 17 combined points from A.J. Hardy, John Carroll and C.J. Stenftennagel.

Hardy scored six points along with five rebounds, two blocks and two steals after once again starting in place of the injured Kyle Czajkowski, who fractured his right wrist during a Shore Conference Tournament loss to Rumson-Fair Haven. Hardy and Carroll filled in the center position for Freehold Township, which the Patriots did not employ as much with a healthy Czajkowski.

“When Kyle got hurt, we’ve had to go to the traditional center and that made John (Carroll) the back-up,” Golub said. “Unfortunately, A.J.’s been getting into some foul trouble, and John has come in and been unbelievable. It’s nice because he’s getting big minutes in big situations and he’s only a junior. I don’t have many of those.”

Carroll also scored six points off the bench and Stenftenaggel added five off the bench, including a three from the corner that answered a Colts Neck run and pushed Freehold Township’s lead back up to 33-29.

Cougars junior Tom O’Reilly led his team with 14 points and 11 rebounds and momentarily lit a fire under his squad with an authoritative tip-dunk to cut the Patriots' lead to 38-33 early in the fourth quarter.

Colts Neck would cut the lead to four twice over the final six minutes, including once on a basket by Tom O’Reilly as he was fouled. O’Reilly missed that ensuing free throw, one of six missed free throws in seven attempts during the fourth quarter for Colts Neck. Daniels also converted a lay-up as he was fouled to cut Freehold Township’ lead to 45-40 with just under two minutes left and he too missed the free throw to complete the three-point play. The Cougars shot 3-for-11 from the line as a team in the second half.

“Sometimes, high school kids miss a day or two of practice, they can’t get in the gym and their shot suffers,” Golub said. “I’m sure we did some things defensively to disrupt them, but I think there was certainly some rust on their part because they have guys who can really shoot it. So as much as I’d love to say that their bad shooting day was all because of our defense, I think a lot of it had to do with them just having an off day.”

Freehold Township’s proficiency in stopping the three-point shot on Saturday bodes well for the Patriots against a No. 13 Hillsborough team that has shot down three home favorites already – all of which happen to also be Freehold Regional School District teams like Freehold Township.

Golub has led Freehold Township to its only Shore Conference Tournament title in 2007 and has taken three teams to a sectional final – including that 2007 team – only to come away one win shy of taking home the trophy. Monday’s game will be the first time the Patriots will be in their home gym with a championship trophy on the line.

“It’s an honor and a blessing to play in games like today and in the one we have coming up, especially on our home court,” Jason Czajokowski said. “Talking to the Colts Neck guys before and even during the game, we just talked about how much fun this is and that win or lose, you’ve got to be able to take it all in. It’s a great experience to be able to play for a championship, and just to have the opportunity to become the first team in the history of the program to win one is humbling and also very exciting.”

Box Score

Freehold Twp. 53, Colts Neck 40

1

2

3

4

F

Colts Neck (16-9)

13

8

10

9

40

Freehold Twp. (21-6)

13

10

13

17

53

 

Colts Neck (40): Colton LaLima 0 0-0 0, Chris O’Reilly 4 1-2 9, Mike Lamb 1 1-2 3, Tom O’Reilly 7 0-1 14, Lloyd Daniels 4 1-3 10, Kyle Gordon 1 1-2 3, Jordan DeGroot 0 1-5 1, Khaled Moustafa 0 0-0 0. Total: 17 5-15 40

Three-pointers: Daniels

Freehold Twp. (53): Nick Facendo 1 0-0 2, Jason Czajkowski 5 4-8 15, A.J. Hardy 3 0-0 6, Dan Saunders 3 5-5 11, Tyree Wilson 1 6-6 8, Mike Staklinski 0 0-0 0, C.J. Stenftennagel 1 2-2 5, John Carroll 2 2-3 6, Brandon Tajfel 0 0-0 0. Totals: 16 19-24 53

Three-pointers: Czajkowski, Stenftennagel