By Ryan Fennell
Colts Neck – Revenge couldn’t be any sweeter for the Middletown North Lions.
With high expectations coming into this season, the Lions were on a quest to attain multiple championships, but twice the Cougars of Colts Neck stood in their path.
After a disappointing, 53-42, loss to Colts Neck in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinal at Brookdale Community College last month, the Lions came into the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV title game against the Cougars on Tuesday night facing their last chance at a title.
With a brilliant second half of play, lead by the team’s core of seniors, the Middletown North Lions came away with a 62-51 victory and the Group IV Sectional Championship.
“We saw them coming in as freshman and knew they had something special,” said Middletown North head coach Mike Iasparro of his senior core. “They’re very good basketball players, but they have a drive, an ambition, and motivation that really sets them apart from other players. Their work ethic in the offseason is tremendous. They eat, sleep, and play basketball.
“Obviously it’s a great win,” he added. “It’s a great win for the program and for the kids, but it makes it even sweeter that it was with this group of kids.”
Both teams took the floor to start the game with a high intensity, which was magnified by the capacity crowd at Colts Neck High School – Middletown North looking to meet its own preseason expectations and Colts Neck, in its best season in the program’s history, looking for its first sectional title.
After a brief back-and-forth of cold shooting, both teams caught fire, trading leads and knotting the score, and the first half ended in a 23-23 tie.
The second half belonged to Middletown North.
The Lions opened the second half with consecutive three’s from Will Boman and Tim Frawley, and a jumper from Cody Thompson for eight unanswered points, causing Colts Neck to call a timeout to regroup.
After Colts Neck’s Hunter Wysocki hit a jumper in the lane for the Cougars following the timeout, Frawley dropped another three-spot to put the Lions up nine and electrify the North crowd.
However, Colts Neck answered with another pair from Wysocki and a layup from Brandon Federici to cut it to 34-29, which prompted Iasparro to call a timeout this time.
When play resumed, after North’s Tim Rhatigan knocked down a pair of free throws, Frawley struck again with another three to put North up 39-30.
And then Rhatigan took over, putting up 15 points off the bench in the game and 12 in the second half, to help North put the game away and secure the title.
Rhatigan hit the final two buckets of the third quarter with a long jumper from the baseline and a layup inside. Rhatigan found a lane early in the fourth for another basket inside before stopping Wysocki at midcourt on Colts Neck’s next possession and feeding the ball to Boman upcourt for the basket and a 49-33 lead.
Rhatigan came up with a monster offensive rebound on North’s next possession and put North up 51-35 and knocked in a pair of free throws next time down the court to maintain North’s 16-point lead.
“We came out of halftime knowing we had to step it up,” Frawley said. “We definitely wanted to come out and get a little revenge.
“He’s been huge for us in the playoffs,” Frawley said of Rhatigan. “He’s been great knocking down shots and rebounding.”
“I’ve been playing well of late,” Rhatigan said. “Just the little things I try to do to help the team. It’s nice for us seniors to go out on top.”
“It’s not really surprising to us,” Iasparro said of Rhatigan. “We know he can play. He just brings that energy off the bench. He came in and provided a huge spark for us.”
Colts Neck managed to close the gap to 55-48 late in the fourth lead by Wysocki, who had a game-high 23 points, but it wouldn’t be enough as North was stellar from the free throw line all night, going 17 for 21 in the game.
“I’ve been telling the kids this from day one – it’s all about the defensive end of the floor and rebounding,” Iasparro said. “When we do that, we’re going to be in games. If we do that and make shots, we’re going to blow people out and that’s been our philosophy all year long.
“We wanted to win multiple championships coming into the season. We felt like we kind of got that one (SCT semifinal) stolen from us. We knew coming into today we were going to play better. We’re very good in revenge games.”
“It’s been awesome,” Frawley said of the season and the sectional title run. “It feels so good to win something for our school and have a legacy at our school.”