NJSIAA Group III Semifinals

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

At Monroe High School

Tipoff: 5 p.m.

Freehold Boro (23-7) vs. Mainland (26-6)

It has been a long wait between NJSIAA sectional championships for both the Freehold Boro and Mainland boys basketball teams, so it goes without saying both teams will be trying to make some serious history on Wednesday night at Monroe High School.

Mainland last won a sectional championship in 1981 and went on to win the Group III championship – its only overall group title. Freehold Boro, meanwhile, has not been this far in the state playoffs since 1973 and has never been farther. If the Colonials can prevail Wednesday night, they will play in a group championship game for the first time ever on Sunday night in Toms River.

From the start of the tournament, Freehold Boro has looked more and more like a threat to win that first ever state championship. The Colonials opened with a 69-52 win over a talented Matawan team, then won white-knuckle road games at No. 2 seed Nottingham – the defending Central Jersey Group III champion – and No. 6 Ewing to reach the Central Group III final for the first time since 1994.

Making its first sectional final appearance in 30 years, Freehold Boro maintained a small lead into the fourth quarter at Red Bank Regional before blowing the game open and beating the top seed, 67-58. In the prior round at Ewing, Freehold Boro squandered an 11-point lead heading into the fourth, only to regain the lead in the final minute and hold on for a 59-56 win. In the quarterfinals vs. Nottingham, the Colonials outscored the North Stars, 17-6, in the fourth to win, 58-56.

While most teams hope for a “big three” and would settle for a big two, Freehold Boro has four players who have starred during the run to Wednesday’s group semifinal. Junior Aidan Hamlin-Woolfolk is averaging an even 20 points per game during the state tournament, which has boosted him into the team lead in per-game scoring for the season. Classmate Brian Tassey held that distinction prior to the postseason and is still leading the Colonials in rebounds, assists and blocks per game.

Senior point guard Christian DiGiso has been the floor general and leader who has also gotten his shot going from three-point range at key moments during the tournament. The fourth member of the quartet is junior Qua’Mir Everett, who made key play after key play on both ends of the floor in the championship game, including a spectacular chase-down block that preserved a four-point lead and swung the momentum back in Freehold’s favor with 4:30 left in the game.

Seniors Sam Cranwell and Will Hon have also given Freehold Boro huge minutes and some scoring when needed. Those two, DiGiso and Tassey were all on the 2021-22 team that went 0-21 and have endured through the lean years to become centerpiece players on a championship team.

To reach the group final, Freehold Boro will have to beat a Mainland team coming off an epic, 69-67, triple-overtime win over rival Ocean City in the South Jersey Group III final. Prior to that win, Mainland handled its prior three opponents in the NJSIAA Tournament and heads into Wednesday winners of 11 of its last 12 games.

The Mustangs are led by a senior backcourt duo of Cohen Cook and Tim Travagline, both of whom have scored over 1,000 points in their respective varsity careers. Cook is Mainland’s all-time leading scorer and enters Wednesday averaging just under 21 points per game on the season.

Freehold Boro will have a height advantage in the game, but Mainland has a tough, physical squad that plays bigger than the heights on listed on the roster. Senior Jamie Tyson is the third scorer on the team and the top interior presence despite being listed at only 6-foot-1. Tyson, fellow senior Stephen Ordille and junior Rocco DeBiaso were all key players on Mainland’s 14-0 Group IV championship football team in the fall and bring the physicality to the lineup.

With a large contingent of seniors and a tight-knit group that has had a wild amount of success between both the gridiron and the hardwood, Mainland is built for the big game, as it showed in outlasting Ocean City. Now, the Mustangs will have to contend with a team that might exceed Mainland in overall athleticism and also has an element of football mentality with Everett and Hamlin-Woolfolk. Freehold Boro has shown it can handle the pressure and also matchup physically with teams in Group III, but this will be a unique challenge. The Mustangs are, big, physical, experienced and battle-tested – even more so than the four teams Freehold Boro has already beaten. The Colonials can do it, but it won’t be easy.

The Pick: Mainland, 56-50

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