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BAYVILLE -- With Manasquan's 2022-23 season on the line and a trip to the program's first NJSIAA state final in 19 years at stake, its two star players stepped up with big shots, just as star players are expected to do.

It was what junior Ryan Frauenheim and sophomore Darius Adams did on the defensive end Thursday against Middle Township at Central Regional High School that stood out to their head coach and pushed the Warriors passed a roadblock that has tripped them up so many times before.

Adams and Frauenheim combined for 33 of Mansaquan's 46 points, hit big free throws down the stretch and combined to take three charges against Middle Township's best player as Manasquan held off Middle, 46-43, to reach the NJSIAA Group II championship for the first time since 2005.

"There are two guys that are leading scorers and primetime players," Bilodeau said. "Everybody talks about the scoring. What goes unnoticed and talked about is Darius is our top rebounder, Ryan is one of our best defenders and assist guys, and both of them are willing to to step up and make those plays that might not get the headlines, but they win you games."

Ryan Frauenheim (left) and Jhamier Howard celebrate Manasquan's win over Middle Twp. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Ryan Frauenheim (left) and Jhamier Howard celebrate Manasquan's win over Middle Twp. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Adams fought through a 2-for-11 shooting first half to finish with 20 points and nine rebounds on 8-for-20 shooting from the field. He also took the last of the three game-changing charges against Middle senior Jamir McNeil, which sent him to the bench with five fouls and 51.7 seconds left in the game.

"I love the culture here," Adams said. "It's a great culture, the coaches are great, my teammates are great and everything about it just makes you want to play for your teammates. Nobody on our team cares about who is getting the shots. We all just want to win and we all have trust in each other that every guy is going to do whatever it takes to win."

Moments earlier, Adams managed to grab a ball he bobbled on the way to the basket and lay it in for a 42-39 Warriors lead with 1:05 left. Adams missed the front-end of a 1-and-1 with 51 seconds left, but Manasquan held the Panthers to a missed three-pointer.

That set the stage for Frauenheim to hit two clutch free throws with 30 seconds left for a 44-39 Manasquan lead, but Middle Township junior guard and leading scorer Bubba McNeil breathed new life into his team by hitting a three as he was fouled with 24 seconds left and nailed the free throw to make it a 44-43 game.

"They hit some shots in the second half, but we knew it was going to be a tough game," Frauenheim said. "Our message is always to stay composed, move on the the next play and play together. There are going to be ups and downs throughout a game are you just have to stay mentally tough."

Manasquan sophomore Darius Adams guarded by Middle Twp. sophomore Jamir McNeil. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Manasquan sophomore Darius Adams guarded by Middle Twp. sophomore Jamir McNeil. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Adams followed up McNeil's three-point play with a pair of free throws with 20 seconds left to extend the lead to three and McNeil's three-point attempt with five seconds left missed the mark. Middle tipped the ball out toward McNeil again, but the battle for the ball drained the remainder of the clock and allowed Manasquan to first exhale, then celebrate.

Frauenheim's clutch free throws were just the last of his heroic moments Thursday night. He was responsible for drawing two of the three charges called against Jamir McNeil -- one in each half.

"(Assistant Sean Fitzgerald) said we had only taken one charge in the first half and he said that wasn't good enough," Frauenheim said. "He challenged us to go out and get two more and that's what we did."

During the first half, with Manasquan's offense struggling, Frauenheim again came to the rescue by scoring the Warriors' final seven points of the half, sending them to the break with a 20-16 lead an on a 12-2 run.

Frauenheim also scored Manasquan's last six points of the first half Tuesday at South River in the Central Jersey Group II final, which gave him 16 of the Warriors' 31 points in the first half of that game. On Thursday night, the junior point guard also added four rebounds, three assists and two steals.

"I was really just taking what the defense was giving me," Frauenheim said. "My teammates did a great job moving the ball and find me open and when the shot is there, I have confidence to take it. It wasn't a great night for us offensively, but I think getting the lead there made us feel good about where we were at."

Senior Jack Dettlinger added 10 points, six rebounds and two assists, while sophomore Griffin Linstra got Manasquan's offense in gear in the second quarter with a three-pointer that cut the Middle deficit to 14-13. That shot accounted for all of Linstra's scoring and he also added five rebounds and three assists.

Ryan Frauenheim (left) and Griffin Linstra celebrate Manasquan's win over Middle Twp. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Ryan Frauenheim (left) and Griffin Linstra celebrate Manasquan's win over Middle Twp. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Jamir McNeil led Middle with 14 points, five rebounds and five assists before fouling out, while Bubba McNeil -- who entered the game averaging 15.5 points per game -- scored all 12 of his points in the second half after battling cold shooting of his own in the first half.

Thursday's win ends a four-game losing streak for Manasquan in the group final round, which have all come during Bilodeau's tenure. The Warriors also made it to the 2020 Group II final against a nationally-ranked Camden team, but the game -- and the season -- were canceled due to the worldwide COVID outbreak.

"It's amazing," Adams said of Manasquan reaching the state final. "This is something we have been working for since last year and I think we're all really excited to play at Rutgers and try to win a championship."

Middle Township -- which is coached by alum and former McDonald's All-American LaMarr Greer -- is the fifth different team Manasquan faced during that stretch and with two sophomores, two juniors and a freshman in the starting five, the two teams could see one another again at least one more time in the next two seasons.

"They have a great program, LaMarr is a great coach and we get along very well," Bilodeau said. "I'm just glad they didn't make the two head coaches play in the game, because we would have been in a lot of trouble.

"I thought last year, we were a year ahead of schedule and I don't want to speak for LaMarr, but I think they performed above expectations this year and you can see why. They have talent, they're well-coached and they're young, so they are only going to get better."

Manasquan senior Jack Dettlinger. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Manasquan senior Jack Dettlinger. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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After surviving a battle with Middle, Manasquan will play for the Group II championship Saturday at Jersey Mike's Arena on the campus of Rutgers University, where the Warriors will meet Caldwell. As the 7 p.m. game on Saturday, Manasquan vs. Caldwell will be the final game of the 2022-23 boys basketball season in New Jersey.

The game will carry special significance for junior Ryan Frauenheim and his family. Ryan's grandfather, Pierce Frauenheim, played for Rutgers's undefeated 1961 football team and is the patriarch of a family that has made its mark coaching football and basketball at Immaculata High School. With his older brothers, Mike and Danny, both winning NJSIAA sectional championships at Point Pleasant Beach, the younger generation of Frauenheims have been stockpiling championships at the Jersey Shore.

Frauenheim is also just three months removed from losing his mother, Christine, to cancer and completing his season at Rutgers with his team by his side and his mother in his heart will be special experience for the 5-foot-9 Warriors leader.

As for Manasquan's coach, it is not so easy to read what this will mean. Bilodeau has downplayed the heartbreak of falling one game short of the state final in four straight tries, plus the canceled 2020 game vs. Camden.

"I don't believe in any of that crap," Bilodeau said. "I just don't. How far we play into the season really doesn't matter to me. I want to know what these guys are going to be like when they are 30 and 40 years old. That's what we're about."

His players get the same message, but they sense it does carry some meaning.

"He is an interesting guy," Adams said of Bilodeau. "He doesn't talk about winning championships really and we haven't talked about getting past this game earlier in the year. At the same time, you can tell it means something. He is really competitive and he expects a lot from us, so I'm really happy for him and all of our coaches."

Whatever he feels about the chance to win a championship, Bilodeau will have the unique opportunity to run practice Friday knowing it will be the last one of the season. Once it is over, the last mission of the 2022-23 season will be to bring home Manasquan's first ever state championship in boys basketball.

"The one bad thing about playing on Saturday is it means (Friday) is our last practice," Bilodeau. "We have seven seniors who are going to be in the gym practicing for the last time together. It's going to be a weird feeling and it's going to be kind of emotional, but it's also a great opportunity to send them off -- first with a great practice and hopefully with a good game on Saturday."

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