FREEHOLD TWP. - The Freehold Township boys basketball team entered Friday's game against Class A North division rival Marlboro with a 10-game winning streak to open the season and at no point during that run has a game been in doubt in the final seconds.

For the first time this year, the Patriots had to sweat out a win until the final buzzer but still managed to survive with one of the best starts in program history intact.

Senior Steve Staklinski scored 21 points to go with eight rebounds, three assists and three steals Friday as the Patriots - No. 3 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - held off a late surge by Marlboro to win, 51-48.

"We could have executed a little better today, but I thought we responded well when they came back," Staklinski said. "We kept playing hard and we're all about defense. We just keyed in on stopping them when we had to."

Freehold Township senior Ryan Zyskowski. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Freehold Township senior Ryan Zyskowski. (Photo by Matt Manley)

The win gives Freehold Township (11-0, 6-0) sole possession of first place over the Mustangs (7-3, 5-1) and is the 11th straight to open the season. That streak is the longest since the Patriots won 18 in a row at the start of the 2006-07 season, when they won their only Shore Conference Tournament basketball championship in school history.

"The zero on the end of our record, being undefeated, the rankings - those are all definitely hanging in the back of our head," Staklinski said. "But we try our best to just push out all the press, all the media and just play our game. It's just about us as a team and that's all we can control."

Freehold Township appeared poised to wear down the Mustangs like the Patriots have their previous 10 opponents. They opened up a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter and led 44-35 midway through the final quarter.

Marlboro, however, scored eight straight points to pull within 44-43, with senior P.J. Ringel igniting the rally. Ringel was making his first start of the season and playing for just the second time all year after missing Marlboro's first eight game with a broken bone in his left hand. He made his debut on Tuesday against Freehold Borough, but played only the final two minutes of each quarter.

"That kid's a stud," Freehold Township coach Brian Golub said of Ringel. "And it doesn't matter what sport - he just competes. He's so darn athletic and so fast. We knew coming in that he's their engine. He did it to us last year when he had like eight or nine steals."

Ringel banked in a runner to chop the Freehold Township lead to 44-37 and after a stop, junior Justin Marcus knocked down a pair of free throws to cut the Patriots lead to five.

Senior Ryan LaRocca then stole the ball out near midcourt and took it in for a layup. Marlboro called a timeout after the basket, now trailing 44-41 with 2:30 left.

Out of the timeout, Ringel jumped a passing lane for a deflection and LaRocca picked it up and threw it ahead to Ringel for the lay-in to cut the Freehold Township lead to 44-43.

"We knew that we had to clean it up," Golub said. "We talked about it the last few days in practice about facing their pressure. All-in-all, I thought we did a good job handling their press."

Staklinski responded with a spin move on the right block to set up a shot off the glass that gave the Patriots a 46-43 lead before Ringel came back down and earned a trip to the free-throw line, where he hit two shots to pull Marlboro back within one, 46-45, with 1:38 to play.

Freehold Township once again executed in the halfcourt to push the lead back to three, with senior Ryan Cardone finding senior Ryan Zyskowski for a layup with 1:21 left. LaRocca then missed a three-pointer on the other end and Staklinski followed with a pair of free throws to stretch Freehold Township's lead to 50-45 with 41.5 seconds left.

Marlboro, however, would have one last gasp. Ringel came down and hit a 24-foot three-pointer to pull the Mustangs within 50-48 and then forced a turnover on the other end to give his team the ball back with 21 seconds left and a chance to pull even or take the lead.

"We're just confident in the way we shoot," Ringel said. "We shoot amazing in practice, so if it's not falling early, just keep shooting and work the ball around until we start hitting them."

Ringel drove into the lane, but his underhanded scoop shot danced around the rim and popped out. Ringel and Patriots senior Bobby Weise engaged in a scrum for the ball and the ensuing jump ball awarded the ball back to Freehold Township, which had the possession arrow in its favor, with 6.5 seconds left.

Staklinski missed the front end of a one-and-one, but Weise came up with another hustle play, this time corralling the offensive rebounds with 2.7 seconds left. He made the front end of his one-and-one and after he missed the second attempt, Marlboro sophomore Dylan Kaufman misfired on a desperation heave from three-quarter court to end the game.

While Weise only scored four points, he made his presence felt around the floor throughout the game with seven rebounds, four assists and three steals. Zyskowski also added 11 points for Freehold Township.

Senior Brian White and junior Ja'zeem Foster combined for eight points off the bench, which helped Freehold Township overcome the loss of 6-5 sophomore starter Greg Billups. White hit a three-pointer to stretch Freehold Township's lead to 31-25 in the third while Foster made it a nine-point lead with a three in the final minute. Foster also hit a driving shot off the glass in the fourth that put the Patriots ahead, 44-35.

"They've been begging for playing time and they got it in big moments tonight," Golub said. "They each hit a huge three and Ja'zeem made a huge layup. So they combined for eight huge points and they did a great job defensively for us too, so I'm really proud of those guys."

Billups left the game early in the third quarter with an ankle injury.

Ringel showed plenty of rust while remaining scoreless through the first three quarters and missed his first 10 shot attempts before finding his offensive rhythm in the fourth. He finished with 11 points and six assists.

"It's just confidence," Ringel said of his re-acclimation to playing. "The doctor said I'm all healed up. It's just a matter of me really getting going, which I did at the end of the game. Now, I've got to carry that over."

Fellow senior Dan Weiss also added 11 points - including three three-pointers. Weiss's third and final three beat the third-quarter buzzer and pulled Marlboro within 36-30 heading to the fourth. LaRocca and Kaufman each added 10 points, with Kaufman also chipping in 10 rebounds and six blocks.

During the first half, Freehold Township's defense resembled the one that held seven of its first eight opponents to under 40 points. Marlboro shot just 6-for-26 (23 percent) as a team as the Patriots opened up a 23-16 lead. LaRocca shot 2-for-9 in the first half while Ringel was 0-for-5.

Marlboro will play the remainder of the season without senior Emir Anda - who tore the ACL in his right knee in the second game of the season - but the Mustangs now resemble a roster that is much closer to the one they hoped to have when the preseason began.

"The end goal is still the same - it's A North, then it's (Shore Conference Tournament) then it's states," Ringel said. "Right now, we're still in the race for A North and when we play Freehold Township, we know that's our main rival. My teammates have carried us the whole year and now that I'm back, I have to step it up. We all do. We played a close game today and came up a little short, but we still have a chance to reach all of our goals."

Freehold Township, meanwhile, is one win over Manalapan - which is still in search of its first divisional win - from running the table during its first turn through the A North schedule. Despite the perfect run through the division, the Patriots expect the second time through to be a grind.

"In A North, there is some great competition and we know it's going to be a grind," Staklinski said. "We don't take it easy any game. We don't back down. We take every opponent seriously and that goes for all of our games."


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