Boys Basketball – NJSIAA Central Group IV Championship Preview
NJSIAA Sectional Finals
Central Jersey Group IV
Monday, March 4, 5:30 p.m.
No. 3 Freehold Township (22-4) at No. 1 Trenton (24-5)*
*Game played at Rivera Community Middle School, Trenton
The heartbeat of Shore Conference basketball on Monday will be not at a private school in Tinton Falls or a few blocks from the beach in Manasquan, but rather at a middle school Trenton. It is there Freehold Township will travel to play top-seeded and defending Central Jersey IV champion Trenton in hopes of capturing the program’s first ever sectional championship.
Freehold Township’s heartbreak in the sectional final is well-documented. Since winning the program’s first and only Shore Conference Tournament championship in 2007, the Patriots have been to five sectional title games in the last 13 seasons, including three in a row from 2015 to 2017 – only to come up short each time.
The last three losses were particularly excruciating. In 2015, Hillsborough – a No. 13 seed in the section playing at No. 2 Freehold Township – mounted a fourth-quarter surge that sank the Patriots, 66-58. On year later, Freehold Township was on the cusp of its first title only to watch it slip away when Colts Neck’s Brendan Clarke hit a short jumper at the buzzer to send his home gym into a frenzy.
Two years ago, Freehold Township was in control with a 12-point lead at home late in the third quarter against Hunterdon Central only to watch the Red Devils claw back into the game and win it on a go-ahead three-pointer with seven seconds left.
Freehold Township will carry that invisible baggage west on Monday, although that represents the program’s history more than it serves as any sort of burden on the current group of players – most of whom were sub-varsity players two years ago. The one exception is current senior Greg Billups, who was a sophomore starter for part of the season before an ankle injury knocked him out of action and ate into his playing time.
Billups is one of four senior starters and six regulars in a Freehold Township rotation that routinely uses nine players during the course of a game and often goes a little deeper. Cristian Corcione, Seth Meisner and Zach Barilka are the other seniors in the starting lineup and Kevin Kilinskas and Matt Santangelo have been significant contributors off the bench, with Kilinskas emerging as one of the more productive sixth men in the Shore Conference.
With sophomore Zach Orrico in the starting lineup and classmates Joe Lardaro and Jayce Schapiro coming off the bench, the Patriots are a deeper team than they were two years ago and maybe as deep as they have been under veteran head coach Brian Golub. That makes up for an overall lack of size – Billups is the team’s tallest player at 6-foot-5 – allowing the Patriots to press and keep a fresh lineup on the floor for most of the game.
In order to end the title drought, Freehold Township will have to overcome a Trenton team that has made a living winning close games in this tournament over the last two seasons. Last year, the Tornadoes made their run to the title as a No. 7 seed, winning their final three games on the road and winning the championship with a 42-41 victory at Colts Neck.
This time around, Trenton has been the home team for its run to the sectional final, although the Tornadoes haven’t been playing at home. Trenton High School’s gym – known locally as Tornado Alley – is undergoing renovations and has bumped its high school basketball games to Rivera Community Middle School. The Tornadoes have fared just fine in their new home gym, going 24-5 overall and winning their first three state tournament games in their new confines.
The road back to the sectional final has not been completely smooth for Trenton. In the opening round, No. 16 Howell took the Tornadoes to double-overtime and went to the free-throw line with a one-point lead and 23 seconds left before the home team pulled out a 64-63 win. By comparison, Freehold Township defeated Howell twice this season, 58-46 and 60-44.
Trenton then beat Mercer County foe West Windsor-Plainsboro North by 12 in the sectional quarterfinals and edged Montgomery, 46-43, in the semifinals on Friday.
Trenton is led by senior Jordan Williams, who enters Monday averaging 17.5 points and 14.7 rebounds and is coming off a 21-point, 19-rebound effort in Friday’s win over Montgomery. Senior guard Nassir Hodge is Trenton’s perimeter threat at 15.5 points per game and a team-leading 80 three-pointers made.
Freehold Township has yet to play a conventionally close game during the state playoffs, although the Patriots did have to rally from a six-point halftime deficit to beat No. 7 Monroe on Friday. Freehold Township beat Princeton 60-50, New Brunswick 80-65 and put Monroe away 58-47. Freehold Township’s last close game was a 59-56 win over Holmdel in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals, which preceded a 78-50 to Ranney – the No. 1 team in the state.
If nothing else, this Freehold Township team is battle-tested heading into a tough road environment against a team with championship pedigree. The Patriots have played like the favorite in this section for most of the year and if they can overcome the road environment, Trenton’s championship experience and the pressure that comes with trying to end the program’s long championship drought, they should make room on the bus back to Freehold for some extra hardware.
The Pick: Freehold Twp. 59, Trenton 54
Boys Basketball NJSIAA Championship Week Schedule
Monday, March 4
(3) Freehold Twp. at (1) Trenton, 5:30 p.m.
(3) Rutgers Prep at (2) Ranney, 5:30 p.m.
Tuesday, March 5
Central Jersey Group III
(6) Burlington Township at (1) Wall, 5:30 p.m.
Central Jersey Group II
(3) Lincoln at (1) Manasquan, 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, March 6
South Jersey Non-Public B Championship
At Jackson Liberty, 7 p.m.
Group IV Semifinal
At Egg Harbor Twp. HS, 5:30 p.m.
Group II Semifinal
At Perth Amboy HS, 7 p.m.
Thursday, March 7
Group III Semifinal
At Brick Memorial, 7 p.m.
Saturday, March 9
Non-Public Group Championships
At RWJ Barnabas Health Arena - Times TBA
Sunday, March 10
Public Group Championships
At Rutgers University - Times TBA