Boys Basketball – Freehold Township Rallies in the Fourth, Keeps Kuhnert Classic Edge
FREEHOLD BOROUGH -- The Freehold Borough boys basketball team wanted to open its 2023-24 season by turning the tide in what has been a one-sided crosstown rivalry for the past 12 seasons.
According to first-year head coach Todd Smith, his relatively inexperienced Freehold Township squad just wanted an opening-night win in a crowded, enthusiastic gym overlooking the court named for the same man for whom the rivalry game was named.
Junior Nick Cardone and senior Andrew Silverman are two Patriots players who have started in big high school games and their experience showed in a 54-50, come-from-behind win for their Freehold Township squad over Freehold Boro in the Jack Kuhnert Memorial Classic.
Cardone scored 15 of his game-high 19 points in the second half and Silverman added 17 for the game. The two returning starters from Freehold Township's 2022-23 squad helped this year's version of the Patriots overcome a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and beat the Colonials for the 18th time in the last 19 meetings between the crosstown rivals.
"I think we were kind of naïve to (the rivalry)," Smith said. "We didn't bring it up. For us, it was opening night. It's Freehold Boro. It's basketball. Let's just go out and see what happens. We tried to keep it as calm and even-keeled as possible for them."
The game was also Smith's first as head coach after serving as assistant to longtime coach Brian Golub, making his first victory as the head coach a memorable one.
"One way or another, we were going to learn a lot tonight, because we have so many young guys and so many inexperienced guys," Smith said. "Even the seniors -- Brandon (Norero), Davon (Stevenson) and even (Silverman) for that matter -- their roles are different this year. We're asking them to do a little bit more of the things they didn't have to do last year because we had (All-Shore players) Jayden (Holmes-Cotter) and Malachi (Harris). It was a totally new experience for basically everybody."
Freehold Boro did not trail until late in the fourth quarter and beat back an initial second-half surge by Freehold Township. Junior Aidan Hamlin-Woolfolk scored on a drive to the rim to give Freehold Boro a 46-36 lead with 4:46 left to play in the fourth quarter to cap a 9-0 Colonials run. Freehold Township had cut an 11-point deficit to 37-36 with a 10-0 run to close the third quarter, highlighted by a steal and dunk by senior Brandon Norero and a three-pointer by Cardone in the final seconds of the third.
"That was awesome," Silverman said of Norero's dunk. "It definitely brought energy to the gym on our side. We just took that energy and carried it the rest of the way."
Trailing by 10 with under five minutes to go, Freehold Township scored seven points in a span of 1:20 and extended the run to 11-0 to take a 47-46 lead with 2:35 left - the first lead of the game for the Patriots.
"It's our experience playing in front of a crowd," Silverman said. "Being used to the atmosphere. The rest is easy.
"Me, Cardone, Brandon, we carry over to the younger guys. They take stuff from us, they learn, adapt and get better every day."
With the game tied, 47-47, Cardone drove to the basket for a layup with just under two minutes to go for a 49-47 Freehold Township lead. Cardone and junior Jordan Dulnuan combined to go 4-for-6 from the free-throw line over the next two possessions to push the lead to 53-47 and Silverman closed it out by hitting 1-of-2 from the line with 7.5 seconds left.
Norero finished with nine points for Freehold Township, which played without senior forward Jordan Conover.
Senior Will Hon led Freehold Boro with 14 points, six rebounds and three assists. Junior Qua'Mir Everett and senior Christian DiGiso each added 10 points, with Everett hauling in 10 rebounds while coming off the bench and DiGiso also adding five rebounds and five assists. Senior Sam Cranwell also pitched in eight points and five rebounds in the loss.
Freehold Boro broke open a low-scoring first half by catching fire in the second quarter. DiGiso, Hon and Cranwell combined on four consecutive made three-point attempts that shifted what was an 8-8 tie going into the second quarter to a 20-10 Colonials lead.
Hamlin Woolfolk then hammered down a breakaway dunk off a steal to push the lead to 22-10.
Freehold Boro's largest lead was 34-21, a lead the Colonials built thanks to a dunk by Everett and a three by Hon.
"We are very young and what we have been trying to preach every day is improvement and moving on to the next play," Smith said. "It's not going to be perfect, but keep competing, grind, be tough physically and mentally."
Freehold Township kept Freehold Boro's two returning all-division performers -- DiGiso and junior Brian Tassey -- in check. While DeGiso finished with 10 points, while Tassey picked up two quick fouls, sat most of the first half, and never established a rhythm in finishing with one point.
"We played tough on them," Cardone said. "We just had to make them make tough shots and we did that."
The focus on DiGiso and Tassey gave space for Hon to net his 14 points, while Everett gave the Colonials a major lift off the bench with his athleticism and finishing ability at 6-foot-4. Everett and the 6-6 Hamlin-Woolfolk cause Freehold Township problems on the glass, particularly in the second half.
"I think they are very talented and very athletic and they are going to have a very good year," Smith said of Freehold Boro. "(Junior) Sean Harris wasn't at full strength tonight and Jordan Conover couldn't play and the whole idea was everyone do the best they can and the kids did."
Despite the athleticism gap and Freehold Boro boasting a roster with more varsity experience, Freehold Township leaned on its program pedigree, which leans heavily into the defensive mindset that got the Patriots yet another win in the Kuhnert rivalry.
"Defensively is the easiest adjustment for us just because what we preach to the entire program from the moment they walk in the door all the way through is you've got to defend," Smith said. "It's one of those things where they have to defend or you don't get on the court. There were times they were good, there were times they weren't, but they busted their rear-ends to do the best they could defensively."
"We had to stay composed," Cardone said. "This was a big win for Coach Smith and Coach Golub. They were 12-1 in this game and we wanted to make it 13-1, so it means a lot."