D1 South: Braintree 43, Franklin 36

BOSTON -– For the second straight season, Braintree (24-2) will be heading back to the TD Garden at the expense of the Franklin Panthers (19-5).

The Wamps held on for a 43-36 win in the Division 1 South sectional final at UMass-Boston in a game that was rarely pretty - not that head coach Kristen McDonnell was going to complain.

“It wasn’t pretty by any means, especially in the second half,” remarked McDonnell.

She added, “You battle nerves; you battle not being in this position all the time. We haven’t had a lot of close games this season and we got through it. We got over the bumps and ended up on top.”

Franklin and Braintree are both teams that focus first on the defensive side of the ball and it forced both teams to grind out each possession to get any points on the board. The Wamps’ size advantage on the front line paid dividends in limiting the Panthers to only three made field goals in the entire first half.

Braintree was not having much success on the offensive end of the floor either, but found a groove late in the second quarter and finished the half on a 10-1 run, including a big three-point play by sophomore Molly Reagan. The Wamps went into halftime leading 24-12 and Reagan led all scorers with seven points.

Foul trouble was a constant issue for both teams. Franklin was forced to finish the half with seniors Kristi Kirshe and Alicia Kutil both on the bench because of fouls.

The Panthers tried to get themselves back into the game in the second half, but a three-pointer from senior Rachel Norton extended the lead out to 13 points late in the third. The Panthers ended the quarter on a length of the court inbound pass by Kutil to senior Stephanie Pisani with only one second on the clock, but it was still a 35-22 lead for Braintree heading into the fourth.

Franklin hung around for most of the fourth and senior guard Sarah Shaw knocked down a three with 47.1 seconds left to bring the Panthers back within five at 39-34. On the ensuing Braintree possession, the Wamps nearly turned the ball over but Norton dove into a crowd of players to force a jump ball.

The play epitomized the type of effort that McDonnell has come to expect from her senior.

“Rachel has battled chronic back pain all season and really shouldn’t even be playing basketball right now,” she explained. “She’s really the toughest kid I have ever coached. She’s our heart and soul. Just to give it her all on certain plays is so important for all the other kids, especially the young players. She’s definitely left a nice legacy for this group.”

Reagan stepped up to knock down four big free throws in the final minute to ice the game for Braintree. The six-foot-two forward led all scorers with 14 points and has benefited from playing in pressure situations last year as a freshman.

McDonnell noted, “Molly is just ice. She was in this position last year, with having to hit big free throws at the end, and she made them as a freshman. I think it’s only made her better and taught her to keep that composure.”

Despite foul trouble, Kutil led the Panthers with nine points, including two slashing layups in the fourth quarter that kept the Braintree lead to single digits. Kirshe added eight points for Franklin, which had no players reach double digits against the Wamps defense.

In addition to Reagan’s scoring, Braintree also received solid performances from senior Alyssa Klotzbeecher (seven points) and sophomore Ashley Russell (eight points). Bridget and Brianna Herlihy struggled from the floor (each finished with three points), but dominated the glass. Bridget had eight rebounds and Brianna (only a freshman) grabbed 12.

Braintree was expected to win and return to the Eastern Mass finals, but the game was a difficult one. McDonnell admitted that she was expecting this type of battle from Franklin. She also remarked that it was a good test for her squad as it prepares for the state semifinal against Westford Academy.

“I think we did well getting through some adversity throughout the game,” said McDonnell. “We had some kids dealing with injuries, obviously foul trouble, so I was just happy with the way my team grinded it out.”