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MANALAPAN -- A week ago Tuesday, the Howell boys basketball team was wondering when it the final minute of a close game would finally work out in its favor, if it ever would at all.

The tide began to turn with the program's first ever win at Christian Brothers Academy on Feb. 8 and one week later, the Rebels again showed that despite some misfortune in late-game situations over the course of the season, they have what it takes to close out big games.

Howell -- seeded No. 17 in the Shore Conference Tournament -- hit 14-of-19 free throws over the final 2:30 and slowed down No. 16 Manalapan to close out an 81-67 win that lands the Rebels in the round of 16 Thursday at No. 1 seed Red Bank Catholic.

PHOTO GALLERY: Howell at Manalapan by Tom Smith

Howell senior Joe Dupuis. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Howell senior Joe Dupuis. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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The last time the two Shore Conference Class A North rivals met, Manalapan beat Howell, 50-47, on Feb. 3 by hitting two three-pointers in the final 45 seconds and benefitting from 1-for-5 shooting by the Rebels from the free-throw line.

"You're going to have some bad breaks during the season, especially playing in A North," Emery said. "You get no days off, so if you have a bad day or you don't execute for a few minutes, there is a good chance you get beat. We took some lumps but we learned from them and we keep getting better."

Just under two weeks later, Howell made sure to avoid any tricky predicaments in the final minute by stepping on the accelerator from the early part of the game and hardly letting up. The Rebels jumped out to a 24-15 lead by the end of the first quarter with a combination of hot shooting (10-for-16 from the field) and offensive rebounding that helped Howell score on its first 10 possessions of the game.

"We have five guys who have all led the team in scoring in at least one game this year," Howell coach Pat Ramsay said. "Our motto is 'Everybody eats.' On any given night, anybody can go off an score, so they know they are going to get a good shot and if it's a quick shot, I'm not going to yell at them. I have confidence that they all are going to make the right decision."

Emery led the way with 27 points, including 9-for-12 from the free-throw line, 8-for-10 in the final 2:30 and 16 total points in the second half.

PHOTO GALLERY: Howell at Manalapan by Tom Smith

Howell senior Zach Emery. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Howell senior Zach Emery. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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"We have been good from the line all year," Ramsay said. "Of course, the one game we didn't make them was here (at Manalapan), when we went 1-for-5 in the last minute-and-a-half. That was a situation where we didn't get the ball to our best shooters and today, we got the ball in the hands of our better free-throw-shooters."

Senior Joe Dupuis was the first-half star, scoring 15 of his 24 points before the break. Senior Nick Gallo also got off to a fast start, with the senior scoring eight of his 14 points coming in the first quarter and finishing with four assists.

Senior Dylan McVeigh added nine points and six assists for Howell, giving the Rebels four seniors who led the charge throughout the game.

Manalapan fought its way back into the game after falling behind, 27-15, early in the second quarter. Senior Mike Cerruto led the Braves with 23 points, while senior Gabe Blackwell added 14 for Manalapan, which got as close as four points in the second quarter and five points in the second half.

PHOTO GALLERY: Howell at Manalapan by Tom Smith

Manalapan senior Mike Cerreto. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Manalapan senior Mike Cerreto. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Stoppages for fouls and timeouts were few and far between during the fast-paced SCT opener, but Ramsay saw fit to use a timeout with 2:31 left and his Rebels up, 67-62, to remind his team to not rush through the offense after spending the first 29 minutes racing up-and-down the floor.

"It's definitely and adjustment to make, because we always play fast, get it and go," Emery said. "We took our time, ran it through and only looked for layups and foul shots."

Howell has harbored high expectations for 2021-22 since the end of last season and the draw the Rebels got in the Shore Conference Tournament and the projected draw for them in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV Tournament will put them to the test. Now, the Rebels to head to Red Bank Thursday to face the No. 1 seed in the field.

If the projected seeds as of Tuesday night hold, Howell will play another division rival -- Freehold Township -- in the first round of the Central Group IV Tournament and a win would likely send Howell to projected No. 1 seed Marlboro. The Rebels actually pushed the Mustangs to overtime the last time the two teams played, so Howell's players are optimistic that whatever the challenge, they are ready.

"I want it," Emery said of the shot at RBC on Thursday. "We like our chances and I think we can play with them."

PHOTO GALLERY: Howell at Manalapan by Tom Smith

Howell senior Nick Gallo. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Howell senior Nick Gallo. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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