FREEHOLD BORO -- It was only two years ago that the Freehold Boro boys basketball team finished the 2021-22 season 0-21 and at the time, the prospect of turning the young core of that team into a 20-win team could not have been further from the mind of head coach Ben DiBiase.

While DiBiase was going through a low-point for the program, he had also been there for some of its highs. During his first stint has head coach, he took the Colonials to the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals in 2009-10 and a year later, Freehold Boro upset Neptune on the road in the NJSIAA Group III quarterfinals.

That win at Neptune was the last NJSIAA Tournament win for the Freehold Boro program. That is, until Thursday night.

Senior Christian DiGiso kept Freehold Boro afloat with a big first half and junior Aidan Hamlin-Woolfolk spearheaded a dominant second half that carried the Colonials -- the No. 7 seed in the Central Jersey Group III Playoffs -- to a 69-52 win over No. 10 Matawan for the program's first state-tournament win in 13 years.

"The fans were electric, the atmosphere was electric," DiGiso said of Freehold Boro's first home state playoff game since 2011. "It took a lot of hard work to get to this point and to be able to be rewarded with an environment like that is amazing."

The victory also marks win No. 20 this season for Freehold Boro just two years removed from the notorious 0-21 campaign.

"I did not," DiBiase said when asked if he saw this season coming two years ago. "I just fall back on the values that if you work hard, you buy into a system and you care about your teammates, then things will turn. And they did, a lot quicker than I thought they would."

"It feels great, especially suffering through that 0-21 season a couple years ago," DiGiso said. "Me, Will (Hon), Brian (Tassey) and Sam (Cranwell), having to go through that, it really made us work and get the other guys around us to work hard too. So just trusting that that work is going to pay off, even against teams that are really good, going on the road and facing adversity, we are confident we can match up with anybody."

DiGiso helped guide the Colonials through the dark days of 2021-22 and he also helped Freehold Boro get through the first half by scoring more than half his team's points. DiGiso scored 15 of his 24 points on the game in the first half, but Matawan took a 29-28 lead into the break thanks to 15 points from junior Chauncey Brown.

In the second half, Hamlin-Woolfolk took over. The 6-foot-5 junior scored 20 of his game-high 25 points after intermission, including a three-pointer that he banked in as time expired in the third quarter. Hamlin-Woolfolk's three capped a 16-4 third quarter for Freehold Boro and sent the Colonials to the fourth quarter with a 44-33 lead.

"I work on that in practice all the time," Hamlin Woolfolk said of using the glass on the three-point make. "You can ask my team, I work on it all the time."

In the fourth, Hamlin-Woolfolk went 6-for-8 from the free-throw line to lead a 15-for-21 shooting effort from the line in the final quarter by Freehold Boro as a team.

Along with his 25 points, Hamlin-Woolfolk put up 11 rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots, while DiGiso pitched in three assists, four steals and hit four three-pointers.

DiGiso also set up the highlight of the first half when he served up a lob to junior teammate Qua'Mir Everett, who threw it down for the two-hand alley-oop and an early 11-6 lead. Everett was an all-around contributor for Freehold Boro with six points, 10 rebounds and four assists.

"When we get dunks, we all get hyped as a collective unit," said Hamlin-Woolfolk, who collected a pair of second-half dunks as well. "It makes us want to play even harder and gas ourselves out on the court."

Junior Brian Tassey was limited by foul trouble throughout the game, but still managed to contribute eight points. Senior Sam Cranwell scored six points on a pair of three-pointers for Freehold Boro and also chipped in five rebounds and a pair of assists.

"It's a luxury that not a lot of teams have," DiGiso said. "Brian said it in an interview before that we're the second-most athletic team in the Shore (behind St. Rose) and I think we definitely are. To be able to have that length and athleticism, but also have guard play at that height just creates a lot of mismatches."

Tassey's limited minutes evoked memories of opening night vs. rival Freehold Township, when the Freehold Boro gym was packed to watch the anticipated season get underway. In that December matchup, Tassey -- who had a stretch this season in which he posted a triple-double in three straight games -- was limited by flu-like symptoms and the Colonials coughed up a double-digit lead in the second half to lose their opener.

"The thought crossed my mind," DiBiase said of that game more than two months ago. "Looking up at the clock tonight and seeing we were up 10 with three minutes to go and knowing the game wasn't over. I give my guys a lot of credit for continuing to play, knowing we have been in that situation before and it didn't go our way. To see them learn from it and get better was very satisfying."

Freehold Boro clamped down on Brown in the second half and held the Huskies junior to two points after the break. Brown finished with 17 points, seven rebounds, three assists and four steals.

Matawan's 6-foot-8 center Jayden Elijah -- who recently announced his verbal commitment to play football at Rutgers -- was a factor with 14 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots, but the Colonials did not allow him to wreck the game on both ends of the floor. Elijah left the game briefly with a stomach issue and later injured his calf, but returned to the floor and played through some visible discomfort for the remainder of the third quarter and the fourth.

"We learned that if Chauncey and Elijah get theirs, you can still limit their other players and you can beat them," DiBiase said. "I thought we were a little bit deeper with guys we have that can score the ball. My staff identified right away that if he was cramping, Elijah wasn't going to be able to guard Aidan, so we isolated him and that allowed him to get going."

Sophomore Ben Morales led the Matawan supporting cast with nine points on three three-pointers and junior point guard Amir Martinez added eight points and four assists in the loss. Thursday marked the second time this season Freehold Boro beat Matawan, with the Colonials winning the regular-season matchup, 73-55, at Matawan.

"I'd like to see the state do something about that," DiBiase said of having to face a fellow Shore Conference Class A Coastal division opponent in the first round of the NJSIAA Tournament. "The NCAA doesn't allow two teams from the same conference to play in the first round of the tournament and I'd like see something like that for us. I wouldn't mind playing a team from Class A South or another division in the Shore Conference, just not a division opponent that we played three weeks ago."

Although Freehold Boro has undergone a drastic turnaround over the past two seasons, jumping from zero wins in 2021-22 to 8 last season to 20-and-counting this season, it has been a day-by-day approach that has led to the success. With 20 wins on the board and a championship three wins away, the Colonials are starting to dream big while continuing to apply their day-to-day focus.

"You always have to take it a day at a time," DiGiso said. "You can't get ahead of yourselves. If we went into this game looking ahead to Nottingham, we might have dropped this one. Matawan is a very good opponent, we beat them during the regular season, but that doesn't matter.

"We're just taking it day-by-day, but knowing ultimately the goal is a sectional championship, or a state championship if we can make it that far."

"I'm really proud of my guys," DiBiase said. "They have bought in. We have been very hard on them for the entire season and preseason and summer and didn't give them any credit until tonight. Now, we just hope we can keep pushing."

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