COLTS NECK - Most leading scorers are reluctant to give up the ball with the game on the line, but not only did Colts Neck senior Lloyd Daniels give up the ball with his team's season on the line Monday night and the Freehold Township defense hounding him, but he did so confident that the program's first ever sectional title was on the other end of that pass - in the hands of the only non-senior on the court for the Cougars.

Junior Brendan Clarke lofted a contested 10-foot shot as the clock expired and it hit nothing but net as the buzzer sounded, giving Colts Neck a 45-44 win over Freehold Township to capture the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship, the first boys basketball sectional championship in the school's history.

"I can't even put it into words," Clarke said. "Big players come through in big moments and our team is full of big players."

"This is our fourth trip at a very young school," said Colts Neck coach Lou Piccola, who guided the Cougars to three previous trips to a sectional final. "I'm just happy for all the players over the years that came through here, for the community and for everyone that is part of Colts Neck. I'm numb right now. The ball went in tonight. Sometimes the ball doesn't go in. We were lucky tonight."

The Cougars trailed for the majority of the game Saturday, but twice responded to go-ahead baskets by Freehold Township in the final three minutes to set up the dramatic final minute. Daniels knocked down a game-tying floater to even the score at 41, followed by a shot by Freehold Township junior Ryan Zyskowski to give the Patriots lead back at 43-41.

Before hitting the winning shot, Clarke found senior Kyle Gordon for the game-tying layup with a shade over a minute to go. Freehold Township senior Nick Facendo came back and earned a trip to the free-throw line with 25.6 seconds left. After missing the first and sitting through a Colts Neck timeout, Facendo gave the Patriots the lead by hitting the second free throw.

The Cougars came back and earned a trip to the line of their own, with senior Tom O'Reilly drawing contact with 16.1 seconds left. O'Reilly missed both shots, but senior Khaled Mostafa - inserted into the game after O'Reilly's first miss - secured the rebound and Freehold Township gave its sixth and final foul before reaching the bonus.

"The call of the game was by (assistant) Steve Jannarone," Piccola said, referring to his longtime top assistant. "After the first miss, he said, "We've got to get the big guy on the floor to get the rebound. Khaled goes into the game, fights for the rebound, they use up their last foul and we get to run a play. Now, they can't grab us and we can actually run something. That was the biggest call of the game."

Trailing 44-43, Colts Neck burned a timeout to draw up a play and Daniels took the inbounds pass and fired a pass to Clarke on his left after dribbling into a double-team near the right elbow.

"They were denying me so hard," Daniels said. "I was trying to push off, and nothing was there, so I got it to Clarke. I saw him drive baseline and he got up the craziest shot I've ever seen in my life."

Brendan Clarke (center) celebrates with the trophy after hitting the game-winning shot to win the CJ IV title for Colts Neck. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Brendan Clarke (center) celebrates with the trophy after hitting the game-winning shot to win the CJ IV title for Colts Neck. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Clarke took one dribble to his left, hung in the air and hit the shot that gave Colts Neck its first sectional title.

"It was designed to go to Lloyd because he's been making plays for us all season," Clarke said f the last play. "It kind of broke down and he found me. I was looking for Tommy (O'Reilly) at the block but a guy came to help, so I just put up the shot and I felt comfortable with it. I knew I didn't have much time, so I decided the make a play."

"I'm holding my breath, I'm like, 'Please go in, please go in,'" Daniels said. "And it went in."

In addition to coming up big down the stretch, Clarke and Daniels delivered on the statsheet as well. Clarke scored 11 points and Daniels scored 16 of his game-high 18 points in the first half while his lone basket of the second half tied the game at 41.

"All season, my teammates knew I had their back," Daniels said. "In the championship game, in the final seconds, they had my back and that's the best feeling."

Clarke hit a go-ahead three-pointer to start the third quarter, but Freehold Township quickly responded with a jump hook from junior Steve Staklinski and a jumper off the dribble by Facendo to put the Patriots back up, 35-32.

Senior Jordan deGroot drew Colts Neck even with a three from the right corner, before Facendo scored six straight Freehold Township points to give the Patriots a 41-37 lead.

DeGroot came up with a steal and took the ball all the way to the rim for a lay-in to cut Freehold Township's lead to 41-39. Daniels delivered his shot to tie the game two possessions later, setting up the final sequence.

"Shots like that, moments like in an environment like that are what make high school basketball special," Freehold Township coach Brian Golub said. "That kid will never hit a bigger shot in his life and he will remember that for the rest of his life. I'm happy for him, but I'm also sick to my stomach for my guys."

At one point from the early part of the second quarter to the end of the half, Daniels scored 11 straight Colts Neck points - the only stretch of success that Colts Neck had against Freehold Township's 2-3 zone before the Cougars started to make headway late in the fourth quarter.

"We prepared to face the zone, but we had to change our plays late in the game because nothing was really working in the second half," Clarke said. "We started getting the ball to the block a little more, made the extra pass and started to get some looks out of it."

Colts Neck ended a recent history of sectional final heartbreak by beating another team that knows that heartbreak all too well. Colts Neck reached three consecutive sectional finals from 2010 to 2012, but lost each game.

"We have seven seniors on this team who all wanted to go out with a championship," Daniels said. "Coach put the goals on the board at the beginning of the year: win (Class) B North, win two games at Rumson (at the Bulldawg Classic), win Shore Conference and a state title. We didn't get the Shore Conference, but we won three out of four. It's a good way to go out."

Freehold Township, meanwhile, lost in the Central Jersey Group IV final for the second straight season, following up last year's home loss to No. 13 seed Hillsborough with another devastating defeat on Monday. Golub has taken his team to five sectional finals in his 21 seasons, but the Patriots have come up empty each time. In program history, Freehold Township is 0-6 in sectional finals.

Despite graduating four senior starters and returning just two players from its regular rotation, this year's Freehold Township team reached the 20-win mark for the fourth time in school history and knocked off a one-loss Hunterdon Central team to reach Monday's sectional final.

"These guys represented their school, their families, their coaches and in my eyes, everybody should be proud with what this team as done," Golub said. "What I told them in the locker room, 'You'll look back on this twenty years from now and the pain will still be there.' I've been coaching a long time and I can go back and remember specific situations, specific games that still hurt. This one will hurt forever."

Colts Neck will now move on to face South Jersey Group IV Atlantic City in the Group IV semifinals on Wednesday at a neutral site to be announced.

"There are 99 things that happen in a game," Piccola said. "Today, the ball went in. It's as simple as that. A kid made a big shot and we're state champions."

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