PISCATAWAY - Within the first few minutes of the second half of Sunday's Group IV championship game at Rutgers Athletic Center, the harsh reality set in for the Freehold Township boys basketball team: the team on the other bench was simply better.

Once the final horn sounded in Newark East Side's 70-44 win over the Patriots, Freehold Township's seniors took stock in a much more comforting reality: they went where no other Freehold Township team ever has.

"I couldn't be more proud of these kids," Freehold Township coach Brian Golub said. "It's been a whirlwind year going through this season and I couldn't be happier for them. They earned a trip here, which no team at this school has ever done, but we ran into a team that was bigger, faster, stronger, more athletic and just better."

Freehold Twp. senior Seth Meisner (Photo by Ray Richardson)
Freehold Twp. senior Seth Meisner (Photo by Ray Richardson)

Freehold Township's first ever trip to the Group IV final started out promising, but the Red Raiders turned up their pressure in the second quarter, broke the dam and flooded the Patriots with a 40-8 run over a stretch of 12:30 between the middle of the second quarter and the end of the third.

That run poured cold water on Freehold Township's plans to continue its trailblazing season into the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions - which is Newark East Side's next stop when the tournament begins on Wednesday in Toms River - but the Patriots were generally upbeat about the entire body of work they turned in during the 2018-19 season.

"I would have signed on the dotted line in late November if you told me we would get to this game," Golub said. "These kids were 9-13 last year with pretty much the same group back and we played as many games over the summer as we did all of last year. I'd be lying to you if I said I thought we be in the Group IV final."

Senior Seth Meisner scored all 12 of his points in the first half, including 10 points during Freehold Township's promising start. The Patriots led for almost the entirety of the first 12 minutes and held a 22-19 edge with 4:30 to go in the first half.

Senior Greg Billups picked up his third foul at that point and East Side pounced. Midway through the second quarter, unleashed its three-quarter court press and Freehold Township fell into a spell of turnovers that sparked East Side's run.

The Red Raiders scored 11 straight points to go up 30-22 and after senior Cristian Corcione ended the run with a breakaway layup, the newly-crowned Group IV champions answered again with seven in a row to stretch their lead to 37-24.

Senior Zach Barilka got Freehold Township within 10 at halftime with a three-pointer that cut the East Side lead to 37-27 heading to the locker room.

Newark East Side quickly squashed any hope Freehold Township had of rallying by scoring the first 12 points of the third quarter and holding the Patriots without a field goal for the first nine minutes of the second half.

"We weren't as composed out there as we would have liked," Meisner said. "They are a very long and athletic team and that played a huge role in their press and made it very difficult for us to break it. The loss of composure was really what allowed them to go on that kind of run."

Billups wrapped up his career with 10 points, 5 rebounds and three assists while Barilka scored all seven of his points in the first half.

Junior Mikah Johnson led East Side with a game-high 19 points and senior point guard Anas Amos added 14 points, six assists and two steals. East Side forced Freehold Township into 23 turnovers, with junior Gabriel Olaniyi swiping five steals to go with his eight points.

Freehold Township bids farewell to seven seniors who played significant minutes on Sunday: Billups, Corcione, Meisner, Barilka, Matt Santangelo, Kevin Kilinskas and Greg Solla.

"It definitely hurts to walk away from guys who we have been playing with our whole lives," Barilka said. "This whole experience was a dream come true. I couldn't be any happier with where we are and I couldn't be any happier to do it with these guys."

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