TRENTON - Freehold Township coach Brian Golub had seen game-winning shots, championship-clinching shots and celebrations in the middle of the floor six times in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship game and never was his team part of one.

That sinking feeling of losing in the biggest game of the year was creeping in again on Monday night.

Patriots senior Greg Billups had spent more time relegated to the bench due to circumstances outside of his control than he'd care to remember. He watched the last 1:21 of Monday night's game under similar circumstances.

For the first 23 seasons of Brian Golub's coaching tenure, at least when it comes to the sectional final round of the NJSIAA Tournament, the other shoe always dropped at some point - usually at the same time as the opponent's game-winning shot.

Photo by Matt Manley
Photo by Matt Manley

Monday at Rivera Community Middle School in Trenton, defending sectional champion Trenton got off two fateful shots in the final seconds and the only thing that dropped was Freehold Township's tag as the team that never wins the big one.

On Monday night, Golub, Billups and the Patriots won the big one by pulling out a 57-56 win over top-seeded Trenton to capture the program's first ever Central Jersey Group IV championship. Monday's triumph ended a long string of heartbreak in the championship round.

"I am afraid to check my blood pressure right now," Golub said amid the postgame celebration. "I had to sit down (with one second left). I couldn't believe it.

"You may or may not know my history but I'm now 1-for-7 in this game. I'll take it."

Freehold Township entered with a 0-6 record in sectional championship games under Golub, including three consecutive losses from 2015 to 2017. Billups was a sophomore starter on the 2016-17 team that reached the Central Group IV final and led Hunterdon Central by 12 points in the third quarter at home before surrendering the lead and the title.

Billups is the only player on this year's team to play major minutes on the previous sectional finalist.

"It's much better this time since we won," Billups said. "This is all I have been wanting my whole four years here. To finally get it done is just the best feeling in the world."

"We knew we haven't had the best luck in the past but we knew we were a new team," senior Zach Barilka said. "We were an older team with more experience  and we knew if we did our job, we could come out with the victory."

On top of the heartbreak of sophomore year, Billups dealt with two different ankle sprains that robbed him of a significant portion of two seasons. He missed a large chunk of his sophomore season after a hot start and injured his ankle again early in 2017-18, hindering him for most of the season.

"I didn't know if I was going to make it through the season or not but I kept my body right, stayed in the gym and stayed healthy," Billups said. "I played hard every game."

Billups led Freehold Township with 16 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals, but fouled out of the game with 1:21 left in the game and his team clinging to a two-point lead. Elijah Kelley hit one of the two free throws after the foul to cut the Freehold Township lead to 57-56.

"We were thinking about some of those losses before the game and we knew this was our chance to get this done for coach and for ourselves," Billups said. "It sucked (to foul out) but I trusted my teammates to go out there and finish the game. We just went out there, played our hardest and got it done."

Before fouling out, Billups returned to the game with four fouls and his team trailing, 53-47, midway through the quarter and swung the momentum with his play. He hit a three-pointer out of the corner to cut the deficit in half, stole the ball and found senior Seth Meisner for a layup, then stole it one more time before finding senior Cristian Corcione for the go-ahead three.

Billups then earned a trip to the free-throw line and hit two shots to push the Patriots lead to 57-53. Two possessions later, he fouled out on a blocking foul near the basket.

"Because I was sitting on the bench, I knew I had to come in and spark something up," Billups said. "I tried to do my best - I hit the three, I got the assist and just kept it rolling."

With its top scorer relegated to the bench, Freehold Township dug in on defense for the final 54 seconds following a missed free throw by Meisner. The Patriots forced a turnover, but turned it over on the other end as well. Once again, Freehold Township forced a Trenton turnover, but gave the ball away with 23 seconds.

"Being so deep, we were able to adjust through the game," Barilka said. "With Greg out, it does hurt, but we really did dig deep and we just knew we had to play our butts off."

The Tornadoes took a timeout with 10 seconds left to set up a final shot. Kelley pushed into the lane and flung up a floater that missed long. Barilka corralled the rebound and was fouled with one second left. Barilka missed the front end of the 1-and-1 and a desperation heave missed the mark to make Freehold Township's championship victory official.

"Once I heard that buzzer, it was like a dream," Barilka said. "It was everything I hoped for. Me, Greg (Billups), Greg Solla - we've all been playing together since eighth grade and we came to Township, we knew we wanted a ring in one of our four seasons."

Corcione finished with 10 points, Meisner, Barikla and senior Matt Santangelo each had nine. Barilka scored seven of his points in the first quarter and added seven rebounds while Santangelo's production came off the bench.

Barilka's start helped fuel a 13-4 run to open the game for Freehold Township before the Tornadoes answered with a 13-2 burst to take a 17-15 lead. From that point until late in the third quarter, neither team led by more than three points.

Billups closed the first half with Freehold Township's last six points to give the Patriots a 33-31 lead going into the break.

Trenton took over in the third quarter, holding the Patriots to six points in the period, most of which Billups spent on the bench. Senior Jordan Williams scored back-to-back baskets to stretch the lead to 46-39 to close the quarter.

"We saw Trenton in person a few times and on film and their third quarter is when they go, and they did," Golub said. "I don't know how our kids kept their composure and kept making plays, but it was awesome."

Corcione - who also sat two different stints due to foul trouble - opened the fourth quarter by getting a friendly bounce on a three-pointer to cut the deficit to four. Freehold Township got it down to 47-46 on a tip-in by Meisner before Trenton answered with a 6-1 burst to push its lead back to six, 53-47.

At that point, Billups came to life and Freehold Township's supportive road crowd joined him.

"I can't thank the student body and Freehold Township enough," Golub said. "They were making all that noise. The cheerleaders rode up, they were working overtime. The whole town of Freehold, from soup-to-nuts. I can't tell you how many people I turned down for tickets and I felt bad. I think there was a streaming party at the high school and hopefully they are going crazy right now for us."

Freehold Township will play South Jersey champion Cherokee on Wednesday, 5:30 p.m. at Egg Harbor Township High School. With a win, Freehold can carry its historic season into the Group IV championship game at Rutgers University on Sunday.

"Their camaraderie, their chemistry, their composure - they just got it done," Golub said of his experienced squad loaded with 10 seniors. "They just sucked it up and got it done. Somehow we got a couple rebounds, somehow we got a couple stops and - I don't know, it's just awesome."

"(Golub) has helped us so much throughout my four years and throughout the other 10 seniors' four years," Billups said. "To be able to give this back to him and to this program is just amazing."


Box Score

Freehold Twp. 57, Trenton 56

Freehold Twp. (23-4)151861857
Trenton (24-6)1714151056

Freehold Twp. (57): Zach Orrico 0 0-0 0, Cristian Corcione 4 0-0 10, Zach Barilka 3 2-3 9, Greg Billups 5 4-4 16, Seth Meisner 3 3-5 9, Kevin Kilinskas 2 0-0 4, Matt Santangelo 3 1-1 9, Joe Lardaro 0 0-0 0, Jayce Schapiro 0 0-0 0. Totals: 20 10-13 57

Three-pointers: Corcione 2, Barilka, Billups 2, Santangelo 2

Trenton (56): Elijah Kelley 4 3-4 12, Jessey Phillips 2 1-2 6, Jordan Williams 6 3-4 15, Ethan Garita 3 1-1 7, Jose Estevez 1 2-2 5, Nassir Hodge 2 2-2 7, Bryce Turner 1 0-0 2, Michael Davis 1 0-1 2. Totals: 20 12-16 56

Three-pointers: Kelley, Phillips, Estevez, Hodge


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