FRANKLIN, Mass. -- "I don't know whoever said that third time thing," Franklin head coach Dean O'Connor laughed to reporters, moments after putting the finishing touches on this surprise season.
The first two times the Panthers squared off with Stoughton this season were forgettable ones. In their most recent meeting, last Feb. 2, the Black Knights came rocketing out of the gates, and quickly left Franklin in the dust en route to a 20-point win.
So tonight's result, a 69-56 win at Franklin High's Field House that captured the Hockomock League Cup, had to feel good. After coming into the season as a dark horse with question marks, the Kelly-Rex Division champs are thoroughly a thoroughbred.
"It's been crazy," junior point guard Sam Bohmiller (12 points) said of these last few weeks. "But I mean, it's a huge confidence boost. Winning the Hockomock against archrival Mansfield, we knocked off KP [King Philip] here, and now knocking off Stoughton, that's huge."
The matchups between the Panthers (14-4) and Stoughton have been intriguing each time for their contrast of style, with O'Connor countering John Gallivan's uptempo style with a surgical flex scheme from the other end of the basketball spectrum. And this time Franklin was the lead dog; they never trailed in this one, and turned in some of its most inspired defense of late to start the first half.
Franklin opened the second quarter with a 13-2 run to head into the break holding a 27-17 lead, essentially grinding Stoughton's affinity for an uptempo pace to a halt. A stout zone defense forced the Black Knights (15-3) into settling for low-percentage shots, and it reflected on the stat sheet -- the Black Knights shot just 6 for 25 in the first half, including 1 for 10 from three-point range.
As expected, the Knights made a run in the third quarter, hitting their first four 3-pointers, including two from Marcus Middleton (18 points). But it didn't make much of a dent in the Panthers' cushion of a lead; they returned the favor with three-balls from Matt Pellegri (17 points) and Joe Palazini (10).
Just how much did the Panthers slow the game down? Exhibit A might have been the final scoring sequence of the third quarter from Bohmiller, who called for a spread play, spacing players far apart from each other around the halfcourt to initiate dribble penetration. With 15 seconds left and just a few ticks on the shot clock, Palazini launched up a three that hit front iron, but senior forward Matt Pilis (14 rebounds) hauled in the long board and sent it back out to Bohmiller with another 15 seconds to work with.
From there, Bohmiller dribbled around the left wing before pulling up near the elbow, shaking his defender with a shot fake, and sinking a feathery 12-footer at the buzzer to make it 48-37.
"I trust him," O'Connor said of Bohmiller. "He'll make a good decision. He doesn't take very many bad shots, and he's such under control. You feel confident with it in his hands. He knows what we want, and he's going to do the right thing, so you can kind of let him go a little bit."
Marking Calixte: It's hardly the first time Stoughton's superstar junior point guard Aaron Calixte has seen a box-and-one defense this year, and hardly the last. Heck, tonight wasn't even the first time he'd seen it from the Panthers.
On most nights, Gallivan has countered the box-and-one defense by sending Calixte to the blocks and having him play with his back to the basket, often drawing repeated touch fouls from guards who aren't accustomed to post-up defense. Tonight, however, the Panthers stuck Pellegri on Calixte and had him dogging him around the court, with Perdikis periodically coming in to give him a break.
Calixte is in perpetual motion at times, and a difficult player to mark. But Pellegri was able to stay on the star point guard's hip most of the night, and while he ended up with respectable stats -- 12 points, on 4-of-9 from the field -- he was not a factor for some of the most integral stretches of the game.
"Pellegri, I mean, he does it to everybody," O'Connor said. "He's a great defender. He's a glue guy on our team. He makes it all happen, he's a great leader, he defends, and he scored the ball well tonight, too."
Pellegri said Calixte, who currently holds scholarship offers from Towson and Quinnipiac, is "much better than people think."
"He dishes the ball, and gets all his teammates involved," Pellegri said. "Second time we played them, they beat us pretty good, and he was dishing, so we wanted them to force the other guys to beat us.
"We just wanted to be physical with him, and not let him get into his groove. Because once he gets into his groove, the whole team starts going. And we don't want to let them get going."