MONROE TWP. -- Little about the Freehold Boro boys basketball season has been predictable and somehow, the Colonials keep finding ways to surprise -- in some cases, even themselves.

Junior Aidan Hamlin-Woolfolk might not have been in the top-five likeliest players on his own team to be a three-point marksman at the start of the year, but there was the 6-foot-5 junior Wednesday night at Monroe High School dropping daggers from behind the arc and flinging alley-oops to his fellow junior Qua'Mir Everett it transition.

Hamlin-Woolfolk highlighted an early onslaught that set the course for the Colonials against Mainland Wednesday in the NJSIAA Group III semifinal, but in order to make more history, Freehold Boro needed to turn to its two reliable veterans to secure a game that was slipping away.

Junior Aidan Hamlin-Woolfolk guarded by Mainland senior Cohen Cook. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Junior Aidan Hamlin-Woolfolk guarded by Mainland senior Cohen Cook. (Photo: Tom Smith |

Hamlin-Woolfolk shot 5-for-5 from three-point range to score his 19 points in the first three quarters before senior Christian DiGiso and junior Brian Tassey carried the Colonials to the finish line in a 73-68 win over Mainland that sends Freehold Boro to the Group III championship game for the first time in program history.

"They have kept working every day," said Freehold Boro coach Ben DiBiase, who has guided the Colonials out of the doldrums of a 0-21 season two years ago. "They have never felt content. They didn't want this to end and the rallying cry for today's game was, 'Not our last.' We wanted to practice again and now we get to be one of the teams that plays on the absolute last day."

Tassey led Freehold Boro with 22 points, six rebounds and four assists and combined with DiGiso to score 12 of Freehold Boro's 13 points in the fourth quarter to close out the game. Among those points was a drive to the basket, plus a foul with 5:16 left that halted a Mainland rally and put Freehold up, 64-56.

Most of the fourth-quarter damage on offense for Freehold Boro came from DiGiso, who scored eight of his 17 points in the final eight minutes while also grabbing five rebounds. After Mainland cut the Freehold Boro lead to 64-60, DiGiso answered with a pair of free throws, followed by a drive to the basket to push the lead back to 68-60.

"Being a varsity starter for four years, you learn a lot of things and the most important is how to be calm and keep your mind straight in late-game situations when there's a lot of pressure," DiGiso said. "I saw we were struggling, turning the ball over a little bit, struggling to score, so I just did what my teammates needed me to do. I got the ball and made something happen."

Mainland senior Cohen Cook scored the last of his career-high 37 points to cut the Freehold Boro lead to 69-64. Tim Travagline then stole the ball and found Stephen Ordille for a banked-in three-pointer that made it 69-67 with 55 seconds left.

Freehold Boro turned the ball over, but the Mustangs could not convert a tying basket and the Colonials took over possession with 21 seconds left. Tassey then stepped to the free-throw line and buried two shots to make it 71-67. Mainland got one back from Andrew Gillman who hit 1-of-2 after grabbing an offensive rebounds and drawing the foul.

DiGiso then went to the line and buried two free throws with seven seconds left to clinch it.

Freehold Boro junior Brian Tassey. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Freehold Boro junior Brian Tassey. (Photo: Tom Smith |

Freehold Boro turned the ball over a whopping 10 times in the fourth quarter, which nearly cost the Colonials a lead they had held since Tassey hit a three-pointer to put his team up, 5-2, in the first quarter. The Colonials led, 60-49, heading into the fourth -- the same margin they led Ewing in the Central Group III semifinals before the Blue Devils stormed back to the take the lead.

In that game, Freehold Boro regained the lead on a go-ahead drive by Hamlin-Woolfolk with under a minute to go and closed out the win at the free-throw line and on defense. On Wednesday at Monroe, the Colonials used the same formula.

"It helped a lot," DiBiase said of his team's experience playing in tense fourth-quarter situations away from home, which Freehold Boro has done in each of its last three games. "We have been there before, we know how to ice it out now. I wish we turned it over a little bit less down the stretch, but that's a very, very good basketball team. Regardless of whether or not they have one player who can score, they defend you, you play you hard and they are very well-coached."

Midway through the third quarter, it appeared Freehold Boro would not need to sweat in the fourth quarter. Hamlin-Woolfolk hit his fourth and fifth three-pointers during a nine-point quarter and found Everett for two dunks -- the second of which was an alley-oop that gave Freehold Boro its largest lead at 53-33.

DiBiase admitted he often discouraged Hamlin-Woolfolk from shooting threes but has essentially given his center the green light for the postseason and the junior has paid if off by averaging 19.8 points in five games.

"It's a testament to him for working so hard with the assistant coaches after practice, continuous shots and getting extras all the time," DiBiase said of Hamlin-Woolfolk. "As a result, his confidence is very high this year. When your confidence is high, shoot it."

"They kept playing with my jump shot, so I had to let them know: if you are going to put your hand down, I'm going to shoot it," Hamlin-Woolfolk said. "They kept closing with their hand down. Nope. It's going up.

"Everyone thinks because the tag 'center' is on me that I can't shoot. I work after practice, I get up shots. Then I go to my trainer and get up more shots. I'm just confident when I shoot. I'm confident from within half court all the way to the baseline."

Hamlin-Woolfolk also grabbed five rebounds, while Everett chipped in 12 points, four rebounds, five assists and two steals. As he has throughout the tournament, Everett provided several highlight-worthy plays, including three dunks, an acrobatic and-one on a fast break and another chase-down block to deny Cook a fast-break layup.

With the quarter of Tassey, Hamlin-Woolfolk, DiGiso and Everett leading the way, Freehold Boro stormed out to a 21-5 lead, which contained runs of 10-0 and 11-0.

"You could tell they were a little tired from that bus ride," DiGiso said of Mainland, which spent more than an hour-and-a-half traveling from Linwood to Monroe, while Freehold Boro's ride was under a half-hour. "It's never easy going that far. Once they got into the game, you couldn't move them. They are head-to-toe, big, strong people."

Over the last two weeks, Freehold Boro has added wins to its resume the quality of which the Colonials did not have going into the NJSIAA Tournament. The road wins over Nottingham and Ewing proved they could pull off road wins over programs with championship pedigrees, and the win at Red Bank in the final dealt a 21-win Bucs team their fifth loss of the season.

On Wednesday, the Colonials reached yet another level by taking out a Mainland team that was a No. 1 seed in its section and boasts a two-year list of accomplishments that suggests they deserved to be considered the favorite to come out of the Central-South half of the state and play in the Group III final. In addition to going 26-7 with convincing wins over Group IV finalist Lenape and Christian Brothers Academy, Mainland has three players who prominently figured into the school's 14-0 football team.

Freehold Boro junior Qua'Mir Everett throws down one of his dunks vs. Mainland. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Freehold Boro junior Qua'Mir Everett throws down one of his dunks vs. Mainland. (Photo: Tom Smith |

Mainland's strength and physical play challenged Freehold Boro, but the Colonials absorbed it. Hamlin-Woolfolk and Everett are football standouts in their own right and were up to the challenge.

"I'm used to stiff-arming those kids into the dirt," Hamlin-Woolfolk said. "Everyone thinks because I'm skinny and tall that I'm weak. I will stiff-arm the shit out of you on the football field."

What about on the basketball court though?

"Flop. Just flop. They are aggressive. If you are overaggressive, I'm going down and nine times out of 10, they are going to call it."

There was also the matter of containing Cook, who matched his previous career-high with 37 points despite not hitting a three-pointer and shooting 1-for-8 from the free-throw line.

"They run a lot of good stuff to get him open," DiBiase said of Cook. "He certainly scored it tonight."

Freehold Boro senior Christian DiGiso. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Freehold Boro senior Christian DiGiso. (Photo: Tom Smith |

Freehold Boro will face its toughest test in Group III to date Sunday night at the RWJ Barnabas Health Arena in Toms River. Ramapo handled Colonia, 49-31, and will defend its 2023 Group III championship against one of the darlings of this year's tournament.

"I trust these guys that they'll be ready to go," DiBiase said. "We're just looking at as our last game and we're going to be us and do what we do."

"God's blessed up to this point," DiGiso said. "Each and every one of us loves being around one another. We love coming to practice, being together playing our hearts out for each other. To be able to be around these guys, that's the best thing about it."

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