STOUGHTON, Mass. -- During the preseason, much of the talk within the Hockomock League circles surrounded two teams boasting talented individuals players -- King Philip and Maryland-bound stretch forward Jake Layman, along with Stoughton and their electric junior point guard Aaron Calixte.
All this, in spite of Mansfield's resume -- a Division 1 South title last March, some of the state's best coaching, and overall supremacy over the league the last few seasons.
Suffice it to say, after tonight there are no questions about who still reigns supreme in one of the MIAA's most competitive conferences. The Hornets dispatched KP to start the season; tonight, they knocked off recently-anointed No. 2 Stoughton, 73-66, after trailing by 13 headed into the final frame.
With the win, the Hornets run their league winning streak to 26 games, dating back to a loss to North Attleborough on Jan. 15, 2010.
"I told my guys, we're not going down without a fight," Hornets head coach Mike Vaughan said. "That's a great team. We had to play a lot of outstanding basketball for a lot of time, just to get ourselves back in the game.
"I like that team a lot. They compete, they play hard. We had to make some big plays down the stretch, and we weren't going down without a fight."
Down 58-45 headed into the final frame, the Hornets (5-3) strung together a series of big plays for an impressive 21-0 run that put the clamps on any Stoughton comeback, after the Black Knights (6-1) led for the first 24 minutes.
It started with some terrific play around the glass from freshman forward Brendan Hill (16 points, six rebounds, two blocks), and stiff defense on the perimeter from Ryan DeAndrade and Michael Hershman. The Hornets seized the lead with some heady play by senior captain Brian Hershman (15 points). First, the guard stole a loose ball near midcourt that had Calixte (28 points, eight assists) initially lost control of, driving in for an easy layup to tie it at 58 apiece.
The next trip down, Mansfield took the lead for good with a perfectly-executed backdoor play right through the heart of Stoughton's 3-2 zone. A high entry pass was dumped into the elbow to Hill, who took one touch and immediately slapped it back out to the three-point line on the right wing. From there, Brian immediately fired a diagonal pass to the opposite post, where Greg Romanko cut down the baseline for a wide-open layup and 60-58 score.
The Hornets never trailed again.
"Every day in practice, we go through a zone," Brian said. "We run a certain play, we swing it, then look for back cuts, anything that's open, take a layup."
Interestingly enough, Brian threw the same pass two possessions earlier, only to have it stolen by Calixte.
"I'd throw that pass 10 times, make it nine times," Brian said.
From there, the Hornets were able to make all their requisite late free throws to ice this one. In all, they made 13 of 15 free throws in the fourth quarter; and in total, they outscored the Black Knights 28-8 in the final frame.
"It's kind of an age-old story of we gave in, in a lot of different ways, to pressure, mentally and physically," Stoughton head coach John Gallivan said. "We just had an internal collapse across the board. We didn't want to do the things we normally do. We had guys hiding from the ball, just dying to get rid of it, and we missed some shots we didn't hit, and all of a sudden we haven't scored in five minutes. You can't do that against a Mansfield team."
Hill 'the real deal': Coaches and players both within the Hornets program and around the Hockomock are already speaking highly of the freshman Hill, who came off the bench and provided the needed spark in the fourth quarter. When they speak of his potential, they're talking about plays like the one he made early in the fourth quarter, a block of the physical Calixte as he crossed up his defender and drove to his right towards the basket -- a clean block but one that nonetheless planted the Division 1 guard prospect square on his behind on the floor.
"He's gonna be a special player," Vaughan said. "He's still learning varsity basketball, and what it takes to play at this level. He got beat up pretty early for a couple of quarter there, and I called him out at halftime. To start the fourth, he showed what kind of a special player he's going to be the next four years and the type of plays he can make for this team."
Brian Hershman takes the praise just a tad further.
"He's gonna be the deal," Brian said. "Give him another two years, he's gonna be one of the best players in the state. He's already showing it right now. He's dominating.
"He sees the floor tremendous. You see his passes, no-look passes, he finishes down low, [he can] do it all."
Chess match: Vaughan showered praise upon Calixte, calling the electric junior "fun to watch", even admitting that sometimes, "I get caught up watching on the sidelines."
Asked about devising a game plan to slow him -- the junior sizzled slightly in the second half, finishing 10 of 23 from the field -- Vaughan chuckled.
"Throw the house at him?" he asked rhetorically, with a laugh. "The house, the garage, the cars, everything. I mean, we did everything we could to neutralize him, and he's...just special. He made big play after big play, and that's the way he'll do it all year, and that's how he's done it up to this point."
Lately, Gallivan has been adding a new ripple to the Black Knights' offense when opponents key on Calixte. Last Friday night against Oliver Ames, a 63-44 win, Calixte went to the blocks and posted up whenever the Tigers came out in a box-and-one defense. Tonight, a similar strategy played out, with Calixte drawing fouls on the floor against DeAndrade when he went to the blocks.
On the other end, Gallivan has been experimenting with putting Antonio Ferreira at the top when in zone defenses. The sparky Ferreira -- whose one-handed slam lifted the crowd to end the third quarter -- could be a nuisance in this look, with his long arms able to disrupt the passing lanes while hustling back quick enough to crash the boards.
When we last checked in with the tattooed one (nicknamed "Nuke", and equipped with his own special chant from the student section) during the preseason, Gallivan told ESPNBoston.com, "He’s playing with unbelievable passion and confidence...He’s about 6-2, but he plays like he’s 6-6."
"We'll throw stuff against the wall and see [what sticks]," Gallivan said of the strategies with Calixte and Ferreira. "In a game like this -- especially with Mike Vaughan coaching the other team -- if you stay in anything too long, they're eventually going to rip you to pieces. You've got to mix things up."