By Jeff Appelblatt
The boys’ basketball team from Freehold Township High School held a comfortable lead entering the fourth quarter in the majority of its games this year. In fact, the Patriots led by double figures after three quarters in more than half of their games — most often cruising to another victory.
However, the team sitting closest to Freehold Township in the Shore Conference A North Division standings, Marlboro High School, has repeatedly shown it will challenge the Patriots from buzzer to buzzer. Marlboro did in the first dual of the teams Jan. 13 in Freehold Township, when the Patriots squeezed out a three-point victory. They did again the second time around Feb. 7 in Marlboro.
The Mustangs fell just short yet again, losing by one point, 42-41.
The second-half frustration of Marlboro coach Mike Nausedas was clearly displayed on the sidelines. He had seen his team take a 21-13 lead to halftime, but his club couldn’t put the ball in the basket in the third quarter — a frame in which the Mustangs were outscored, 13-4, falling behind by one point entering the final eight minutes.
“Sometimes you’re going to make shots and sometimes you’re not. That’s what happens,” Nausedas said after the loss. “They made more shots than us in the second half.”
Each team scored 16 points in the fourth quarter, giving the Patriots a one-point win. But Nausedas was only able to look at the positives.
“That’s a great team, a well-coached team. Congrats to them. Hats off to them,” Marlboro’s coach said. “We played hard. We fought to the end. You can’t really fault that.”
Freehold Township coach Brian Golub has said all season that his team could never overlook anyone, especially not a team like Marlboro.
“In preseason, before P.J. [Ringel] got injured, they were my one pick in A North. That’s who I thought we’d be chasing to win,” Golub said. “They’re a complete team. They’re a very good basketball team.
“They match us size-wise, and Ringel might be the best player in A North. He just does so many crazy things.”
The senior from Marlboro led all scorers with 17 points, but Freehold Township took advantage of his and the rest of the Mustangs’ struggles to score in the third.
Golub’s team has been a very good, complete team all year too. The return of Greg Billups against Marlboro only helped cement that. Billups was out eight games after suffering an ankle injury in the first game with the Mustangs. Freehold Township’s coach was excited to have him back on the floor, even if not at full speed.
“We definitely missed him. He definitely brings another dimension to our team. He handles the ball. He shoots the ball. He distributes the ball. And he plays defense. He’s a complete player, and he helps us tremendously,” Golub said about the sophomore after his first game back.
Billups was excited to play again, but his top priority has always been his team — even when he was standing on the sideline with protection around his leg.
“Just to come out here and get a win, it feels great,” he said after beating Marlboro.
Not that losing is something Billups witnessed much. With him on the sideline, Freehold Township (20-1) lost to Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) Jan. 27 for its first defeat of the year and got right back to winning with ease a few days later, crushing past Colts Neck High School, 73-51.
The sophomore has seen a few nail-biters lately. After beating Marlboro by one point, the Patriots struggled against another A North rival, Manalapan High School (2-17), which hasn’t won since Jan. 3. The Patriots couldn’t put the Braves away until Ryan Cardone nailed a shot at the buzzer to give Freehold Township a 45-44 win.
The same night, it took Marlboro (14-5) two overtimes to defeat CBA (13-8), 54-52.
Freehold Township has one more regular-season game on its schedule Feb. 23 at 5:30 p.m. at Long Branch High School (14-7). The Patriots were already given the top seed in the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group IV tournament. In the first round Feb. 27, they’ll host Middletown High School South (7-15) in Freehold Township at 6 p.m.
Marlboro, the No. 4 seed, will host Princeton High School (9-10) the same night at 7 p.m.