FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP - With a 12-point lead late in the third quarter in front of a raucous home crowd on Tuesday night, it looked like this would finally be the season that Freehold Township erased the memories of agonizing losses in the championship game and captured its first NJSIAA sectional title.

Instead the Shore Conference's Heartbreak Kids suffered another devastating loss while coming oh-so-close to winning the program's first Central Jersey Group IV crown.

Second-seeded Hunterdon Central came storming back behind a stifling defense to set the stage for a clutch 3-pointer by junior guard Anthony McDowell with seven seconds left in regulation that gave the Red Devils a 41-39 win and the first NJSIAA sectional title in their program's history. The final score marked the only time Hunterdon Central led in the entire game.


Top-seeded Freehold Township (25-3) lost in the CJ Group IV final for the third straight season, and for the second straight time in heart-breaking fashion after falling to Colts Neck on a buzzer-beater last year.

"I feel for the kids,'' Freehold Township head coach Brian Golub said. "They don't deserve to lose that way twice in a row. They're too good of kids. They deserve better, so it's a tough one."

Senior forward Steve Staklinski had a game-high 20 points along with 9 rebounds in his final game, and senior forward Ryan Zyskowski added 13 points and 10 rebounds in the loss. Guard Sam Johnson and center Chad Dreswick each had 10 points to lead Hunterdon Central, which has now won 13 straight games.

McDowell only hit two shots from the field in the game, a pair of 3-pointers, but both were huge. His first one tied the game at 36 with 2:36 remaining, and then his second one from the left corner off a pass by Tucker Richardson turned out to be the game-winner when the Patriots could only get off a desperation heave at the buzzer.

"I'm not gonna lie, that's the best feeling I've had in a while,'' McDowell said. "It's hard to put into words. It feels amazing. I'm letting all the emotion go right now, I'm so happy for my team."

"I told that young man at the end of the game that's a shot that he'll remember the rest of his life and congratulations on knocking it down,'' Golub said. "That's how you win championships. You make plays like that."

Senior guard Bobby Weise hit free throws to put Freehold Township up late in the game, but the Patriots could not hold on in falling to Hunterdon Central. (Photo by Scott Stump)
Senior guard Bobby Weise hit free throws to put Freehold Township up late in the game, but the Patriots could not hold on in falling to Hunterdon Central. (Photo by Scott Stump)

The Patriots tied the single-season school record for wins this winter while also capturing the Class A North crown and winning the WOBM Christmas Classic. It also was a trying year for Golub, whose father passed away last month.

"I told them 'thank you,' and I told them I love them,'' Golub said while trying to hold back tears. "Six of those seniors helped me bury my dad two weeks ago. They were my pallbearers. They volunteered to do that.

"There's a whole lot more than basketball being taught after this. It's a life lesson."

The Red Devils (26-3), who advance to play Shawnee in Thursday's Group IV semifinals, held Freehold Township to only five points in the fourth quarter, all of which came on free throws. The Patriots went 0-for-4 from the field and committed seven turnovers in the period to allow Hunterdon Central to rally from a 34-26 deficit going into the fourth.

"To their credit, they played unbelievably good defense,'' Golub said. "The pressure got us. They turned us over, we didn't get good looks. Nothing that we didn't know was coming, nothing that we didn't prepare for. We didn't make plays, and they made plays."

The Patriots were in command at halftime, up 26-16 at the break as Staklinski and Zyskowski combined for 22 points and Freehold Township held the Red Devils to 7-for-23 shooting, including 0-for-6 from 3-point range.

They also stifled Richardson, the team's leading scorer at 18.4 points per game, who was coming off a 31-point outburst in a win over Old Bridge in the semifinals. He finished with 7 points on 3-for-17 shooting, but did play a key role in the final sequence by driving and kicking to McDowell for the game-winner.

Freehold Township had the lead up to 32-20 when Staklinski laid in an alley oop from Zyskowski with 2:46 left in the third quarter. However, an ominous trend was developing, as the Patriots had seven turnovers in the period after Hunterdon Central turned up the full-court pressure.  

Hunterdon Central then went on a 10-2 run to start the fourth quarter and tie the game after McDowell splashed in his first 3-pointer.

"I had a rough game all through the first half,'' he said. "I was kind of timid because my shot wasn't falling, and coach was just like, 'Put that shot up, I know it's going to go in.'''

A pair of free throws by senior guard Bobby Wiese gave Freehold Township the lead back, but Hunterdon Central answered with a bucket inside by Dreswick. Staklinski made one of two free throws for a 39-38 lead with 27.7 seconds left, setting the stage for McDowell's heroics when he caught the pass from Richardson in the corner. The play was designed to get Richardson in the lane for a good look, but he instead kicked it to McDowell.

"They happened to pack the paint in, and I just happened to be open,'' he said. "I just had to knock down the shot."

"That's what makes them similar to what I consider us, a good basketball team,'' Golub said. "They have other options, and I'll roll the dice on (McDowell making that shot). It hurts, it's tough."

It's a shot that will have the Patriots once again wondering what might've been, but their effort and their support for their coach during a trying season will never be questioned.

"They've got nothing to be ashamed of, embarrassed of,'' Golub said. "They played their butts off tonight. We just lost to a better team."

WATCH: Tyler Pierson's dunk caps Rumson's first sectional title

Box score

Hunterdon Central 41, Freehold Twp. 39

Hunt. Central (41): T. Miller 0 0-0 0, Shaw 0 0-0 0, Richardson 3 0-0 7, Adams 0 0-0 0, Johnson 5 0-2 10, Dreswick 4 2-2 10, McDowell 2 1-2 7, Degen 1 0-0 2, Sperrazza 2 0-0 5. Totals: 17 3-6 41.

Freehold Twp. (39): Weise 1 2-2 4, Staklinski 6 7-10 20, Cardone 1 0-2 2, Zyskowski 4 4-4 13, Foster 0 0-0 0, Billups 0 0-0 0, White 0 0-0 0, Hasner 0 0-0 0. Totals: 12 13-18 39.

Hunt. Central (26-3) 8  8  10  15 - 41

Free Twp. (25-3)     15  11  8   5 - 39

Three-pointers: (F) Staklinski, Zyskowski; (H) McDowell 2, Sperrazza, Richardson. Fouled out: None.

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