TOMS RIVER - Freehold Township senior Cristian Corcione insists that at no point did his Patriots boys basketball team take Holmdel lightly on Sunday during the second game of the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinal lineup at RWJ Barnabas Health Arena.

It would be hard to blame Corcione and company if they did start to overlook Holmdel after five-and-a-half dominant quarters against the Hornets through the first 13 minutes of Sunday's quarterfinal showdown in Toms River.

At that point, however, Holmdel - the No. 12 seed in the SCT - rose to the occasion and forced No. 4 Freehold Township lean on its seniors to bring home the program's first conference quarterfinal win in 12 years.

PHOTO GALLERY: Freehold Twp. vs. Holmdel by Ray Richardson

After overwhelming Holmdel for the first quarter-and-a-half on Sunday, Freehold Township survived a torrid comeback by the Hornets to win, 59-56, and advance to the SCT semifinals Thursday night for the first time since winning the tournament back in 2007.

"We knew they were going to be a much-improved team this time," Corcione said of Holmdel. "They are well-coached, they bring a lot of speed and energy as a team. We knew they were going to be a lot better and that we had to bring our A-game."

That A-game showed up early, with Freehold Township storming out to a 26-9 lead by the early part of the second quarter and pushing it to 34-17 with a little more than two minutes left in the first half. Holmdel, however, scored the final nine points of the half and the first seven of the third quarter to storm back into the game. By the end of the third quarter, Holmdel had pulled even, 37-37, thanks to a 20-3 run over a 10-minute stretch.

"We found ourselves in a tie game and we just kind of said to ourselves in the huddle, 'It's zero-zero - now it's just about who wants it more,'" Corcione said. "We knew with the guys we have, with the heart we have, the togetherness we have, we knew we were going to bring it in the fourth quarter. We just had to stay composed and bring that energy on defense because we trust the group of guys we have to pull it out."

Despite reeling after three quarter, Freehold Township started the fourth on a 15-5 run to build a 10-point lead. Holmdel chipped away and cut the deficit to 56-54 on a layup by junior Eric Hinds, followed by a Freehold Township turnover that gave the ball back to the Hornets. They had a chance to take the lead with three three-point attempts on the ensuing possession but all three - one by Hinds and two by fellow junior Jack Giamanco - rimmed out.

Patriots senior Seth Meisner followed with two foul shots to extend his team's lead to 58-54 with 11.2 seconds left and Holmdel answered with a layup by Giamanco with four seconds left. Corcione then hit the first of two attempts from the line and after missing the second, junior Derek Chan's potential game-tying heave from half court came up short.

"We felt really good about our chances at halftime but we were still kind of annoyed at how the game started," Holmdel coach Sean Devaney said. "Freehold Township just came out with a much faster pace than we did and I couldn't believe how long it took us to adjust to it. We have seen this sort of speed before, but they were just relentless for the first 10 minutes or so.

"We started to make some shots and I think that gave us some confidence to play with them the rest of the way, which is what our guys did. It's disappointing we couldn't get off to a better start and give ourselves a better chance but I proud of the way our guys battled."

Corcione led Freehold Township with 18 points and senior Greg Billups scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half. Holmdel threw a box-and-one at Freehold Township in the third quarter in an attempt to bottle up Billups and the Patriots scored only three points in the quarter.

"I've always been told when a team goes box-and-one, we  should just run our man set," Freehold Township coach Brian Golub said. "So I just gave Billups the ball and gave him picks, so they would be at a disadvantage. We had opportunities that we didn't finish and one of the things always hear me say is good ideas become great plays when you finish. When you don't finish, a good idea is just in the wind."

Meisner and fellow senior Zach Barilka chipped in nine points each, with Meisner starting the fourth quarter with a go-ahead three-pointer and Barilka converting a critical basket as he was fouled to push Freehold Township's lead to 54-46.

Meisner's three-pointer served to catapult the Patriots into the lead for good as Holmdel's comeback never resulted in the Hornets taking a lead.

"The senior leadership is invaluable," Golub said. "They made some plays. All things considered, they came though when we needed them."

Junior Eric Hinds led Holmdel with 18 points and junior Doug Chan poured in 11. Junior John Curreri and sophomore Alex Baker each added eight points in the loss.

The Hornets' loss, while heartbreaking in the here-and-now, is a positive sign for a team so reliant on juniors. Holmdel was playing in the program's first SCT quarterfinal game since 1999 and will now have a battle-tested roster heading into the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II Playoffs, as well as next season, when most of the team will be seniors.

"They are tough," Golub said of Holmdel. "So well-coached, so well-disciplined and they made plays. The scary thing for them is they have everybody back, so this experience for them is going to be awesome going forward. I'm just happy to get out of here with a win."

"I don't like to look at a team based on who is coming back and things like that," Devaney said. "You never know what can happen with injuries and other things that are out of your control so when you get an opportunity like this, you want to take full advantage of it. I hope this experience will make us better but that's going to be up to us."

Freehold Township's tournament continues Thursday in Toms River against top-seeded Ranney, which also happens to be the state's top-ranked team as well. The Patriots are eyeing their first SCT championship in a dozen years and in order for that to happen, they will have to pull off one of the great upsets in tournament history against a Panthers team with two McDonald's All-Americans and with a national ranking.

"We are going to play Freehold Township basketball, which means we are going to show up and play our ass off," Golub said. "If it's enough, it's enough and if it's not, it's not. It doesn't matter if it's Ranney, CBA, RBC, Holmdel, Middletown South - I don't care who it is. We are going to show up and play Freehold Township basketball because that's all we can do."

 

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