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HOLMDEL - The Homldel boys basketball team has lost four times to two teams during the course of the 2019-20 season, but the Hornets know what it feels like to let a big lead get away.

That is exactly what happened in a Shore Conference Tournament semifinal against eventual conference champion Manasquan and when it felt for a time that it might happen Saturday against Lincoln in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II semifinal, Holmdel dug deep, finished strong, and earned a spot in a championship game after all.

After giving up a 14-point lead, second-seeded Holmdel rallied behind junior Alex Baker and seniors Pete Cannizzo and Eric Hinds to beat the sixth-seeded Lions, 60-57, and earn a spot in the Central Group II final for the first time since 2012.

Saturday's win earns Holmdel yet another shot at Manasquan, a team that has denied the Hornets three times this season and will try to make it four as the Warriors pursue a second straight Central Jersey Group II championship.

Holmdel senior Pete Cannizzo. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Holmdel senior Pete Cannizzo. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

"Our kids have been pretty resilient all year," Holmdel coach Sean Devaney said. "The last thing we were worried about was 'What are we going to do?' They just dug in a little deeper."

Junior Alex Baker led Holmdel with 22 points and eight rebounds, with 14 of his points coming in the second half. Cannizzo and Hinds each added eight, with Cannizzo scoring six in the fourth while also contributing six rebounds, six assists and three steals for the game.

"We take pride in our defense and we take pride in each other," Baker said. "We've got each others backs so we know if we play hard, every guy on the team is going to play hard."

Both Hinds and Cannizzo helped key a defensive effort that forced 23 Lincoln turnovers, including 11 in the first quarter. Cannizzo sparked a stellar fourth-quarter defensive effort by chasing down a block in the first minute and Hinds capped it with a steal in the back court with 20 seconds left and Holmdel ahead, 58-55. Baker then hit a pair of free throws to ice the game.

"Hinds coming up with that steal off the miss was obviously huge," Devaney said. "That was the play of the game."

Senior Jack Giamanco scored 10 points off the bench, including nine during the first half. Holmdel ripped off a 10-0 run to go up 14-4 and built a 21-7 lead by early in the second quarter before Lincoln began chipping away.

The Lions made it to halftime trailing 32-24, overcoming the 14 first-half turnovers and 6-for-13 shooting from the free-throw line by shooting 8-for-11 (72.7 percent) from the floor in the half.

"We were trapping a lot early and getting a lot of turnovers, but then we started to get in foul trouble," Devaney said. "We had to back away from the trap and they started beating us to the basket and then on our rotations, they were either beating us off the dribble or on the glass. I was really hoping we could get back to trapping them again because that's what was a big plus for us."

"They learned what we were doing - trying to trap them early," Cannizzo said. "We had to adjust and that's exactly what we did. We got stops just playing straight-up defense, hitting the boards and getting out and running."

Senior Prime Payton took over in the third quarter, scoring 13 of his team-high 19 points to propel Lincoln into the lead. He hit a three-pointer to give the Lions a 46-43 edge - their first lead since 4-2 in the first quarter. Payton then scored on a putback to make it 48-45, which was the score heading into the fourth quarter.

Lincoln inched the lead up to 52-47 when Holmdel responded with a 10-1 run. Cannizzo scored six straight points during the run, including two game-tying free throws and a short jumper to give Holmdel a 54-53 lead.

"I try to really take the pressure off of some guys," Cannizzo said. "Hinds has to bring the ball up with pressure in his face, Baker has to deal with 6-6 in his face, so I was just trying to relieve some of the pressure by just doing my part."

Baker then scored to make it 56-53 with three minutes left and senior Doug Chan canned a free throw to make it 57-53 with 2:32 left. Kareem Howze answered with a pair of free throws to cut Holmdel's lead to 57-55 with 2:12 left but Holmdel came back and bled 1:30 off the clock before Giamanco hit the front end of a 1-and-1 to push the lead back to three.

"We started to run more set plays," Devaney said. "We ran one play a lot - just back-screening, trying to get the ball down low. We are always trying to get the ball to Baker as much as we can and play inside-out. We're not a real good team off the dribble, so once we started to get the ball down low, that kind of negates their pressure and their length."

Lincoln missed only 11 shots for the entire game (19-for-30) but three of them came in the final 45 seconds while trying to even the score, to no avail.

Holmdel's last trip to the sectional final round ended with a 48-42 loss at Ewing in 2012, with the Blue Devils overcoming a nine-point halftime deficit to get by the Hornets on the way to a Group II title and Tournament of Champions appearance. Holmdel last won a sectional championship in 1999, when the Hornets also won the second of two Group II championships to earn a second consecutive T of C appearance.

"This is great for these guys," Devaney said. "Nothing comes easy. We're not the type of team to go out and score 75, 80 points and put teams away. That's just not the way we do it. I wish we could, but it's just not that simple, so this something that they have worked for and earned day-in and day-out."

"It's been a helluva two years," Baker said. "Last year we definitely made strides but it's not as strong as this year. This year, we laid our goals out, we knew what we wanted to do and we just go to work every day. If we just kept working had, we knew we could do something special."

In order to replicate that state title run from 21 years ago, Holmdel will have to first get through a Manasquan team that blew them out the last time the two teams played at Manasquan High School - the site of Tuesday's championship game. That game, however, was back on Jan. 7 and in the two meetings since, Holmdel played Manasquan close. The Warriors held off the Hornets in Holmdel, 46-40, in the second regular-season game, followed by the come-from-behind win in the SCT semifinals on Feb. 27.

Holmdel's 2018-19 season also ended at Manasquan in the Central Group II quarterfinals.

"They our tough, they have tremendous talent," Cannizzo said. "We just have to come out swinging and try to finish the job."

"We know each other like the backs of our hands," Baker said. "We would love to play them again and beat them for a sectional title. That would be the best time to beat them."


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