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HOWELL -- The seniors on the Howell boys basketball team set out to change the history of the program this season and in the first round of the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV Tournament on Monday, the Rebels' task was to win in a gym in which they had never won a playoff game against a team they had beaten just once in the last 20 tries.

History made and mission accomplished.

Senior Zach Emery scored 26 points and hit six of Howell's 12 three-pointers to help lead the Rebels -- seeded No. 8 in the Central Group IV Tournament -- to a 69-61 win over Freehold Township.

The victory marked Howell's first ever NJSIAA playoff win at home and it was just the second time since the start of the 2011-12 season that the Rebels beat their Freehold Regional District and Shore Conference Class A North rival -- a stretch that has included 20 prior meetings and just one Howell win, which came during the 2017-18 season.

"It felt good to finally beat them," Emery said. "We were 1-19 or whatever against them, but we knew we could play with them. We should have had them the first two times, in my opinion, but we just couldn't get the little things done. Today, 1-19 didn't mean anything. The playoffs is all that matters and we were able to beat them in the most important game of the year."

Howell got off to a red-hot start Monday, with Emery drilling a three-pointer to extend his team's lead to 30-17 with just under five minutes to go in the first half. Freehold Township, however, chipped away during the remaining minutes of the second quarter and with an 18-5 run, completely erased its deficit and went into the locker room even with the Rebels, 35-35.

With the lead and the momentum gone, Howell was forced to regroup and regain control of the game against a team that has owned the Rebels for the last decade, including two wins during the 2021-22 regular season.

"Our problem was our offense slowed down and our defense had to pick up and it didn't," Emery said. "So our whole halftime speech was about defense. If our defense got better, our shots would eventually fall and it had to start on defense."

Freehold Township jumped in front early in the third quarter and went ahead, 45-42, on a jumper by senior Josh Ibaretta. Two possessions later, Emery tied the game with his sixth three-pointer of the game and senior teammate Dylan McVeigh capped the third quarter with a strong drive to the basket and finish for a 47-45 Howell lead heading to the fourth.

"There aren't really any secrets at this point, especially with the teams we're playing," Howell coach Pat Ramsay said. "It's win and advance or lose and go home and with the seniors we have, they know that. I think they have done a good job staying loose and just staying focused on what they need to do."

Junior standout Jayden Holmes-Cotter pulled Freehold Township even to start the fourth quarter, but Howell senior Nick Gallo immediately answered with a three from the top of the key to push the Rebels in front, 50-47.

The threes by Emery and Gallo were the last two Howell hit in the game, and the Rebels never trailed after Emery's three and never gave up the lead again after Gallo's.

Senior Joe Dupuis then came through with two crucial baskets, one three-point play to extend the lead to 53-49, followed by a driving scoop shot to make it 57-49. In between, junior Damien Padilla went hard to the rim for a layup that put Howell ahead, 55-49, and he later found a wide-open McVeigh for a layup that pushed the lead to 59-49 with 2:10 left.

All told, after Howell's 12th three-pointer of the game gave the Rebels the lead, they closed it out with five layups.

"We have definitely started to close out games better now than in the beginning of the season," Emery said. "We had close games against Marlboro and CBA where we didn't end up on the right side but now, we are starting to get over the hump."

Howell also closed the game out on the free-throw line, although it was a shaky start from the charity strip in trying to seal the win. Emery made one of two to push the lead to 60-51 and after a three-point play by Holmes-Cotter, senior Marc Tango missed the front-end of a 1-and-1.

Freehold Township had a chance to cut the lead to four, but senior Ryan Keegan could not get either of his two free throws to fall and the Howell lead remained 60-54 for the moment.

From there, the Rebels hit seven in a row from the line, with Dupuis hitting a pair and Emery knocking down five straight before finally missing one. McVeigh then scored off a turnover with six seconds left to make it 69-61 and start the celebration.

Dupuis finished with 14 points, six rebounds and four assists for Howell. McVeigh added 12 points and four assists and Gallo chipped in nine points on three three-pointers to go with five assists.

Padilla also added eight points, 13 rebounds and three assists for Howell and also made Holmes-Cotter work for his 23 points and eight rebounds. Holmes-Cotter had to go to the bench for the second half of the third quarter after picking up his third foul while battling against Padilla.

Padilla also fouled out with 2:01 left in the game and Holmes-Cotter took advantage by scoring six points during that final stretch.

"We knew everything that they run goes through Jayden," Ramsay said. "We tried our best to make it hard for him, not just on offense, but on defense we tried to attack him. Damien did a great job on him, Marc Tango and John Diab came in and battled him when we needed them. It was a team effort and those guys all did a great job."

Keegan added 10 points for Freehold Township and senior Sean Keegan also chipped in nine points on three three-pointers.

Howell's celebration will be relatively short, as Howell prepares to make a short trip over to Marlboro, where the No. 1 seed and recently-crowned Shore Conference Tournament champion will host the Rebels for the third meeting of the season between the Class A North rivals.

Marlboro won both regular-season games against Howell and dismantled the Rebels, 72-39, in Marlboro in January. In the second meeting, however, Howell took Marlboro to overtime and even led with under two minutes to go before the Mustangs battled back and won it, 67-58.

"They are a very good team," Emery said of Marlboro. "We know we can play with them. It's going to be all about defense. That's what it's going to come down to because they have five kids who can put the ball in the basket. We know we can score, but we have to find a way to slow them down."

"They're number one in the Shore for a reason," Ramsay said. "I've felt all year long that they're number one. They've got experience, they've got some really good players and it's not just (Jack) Seidler and (Jonathan) Spatola. We're going to give them our best shot and we'll see what happens."

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