MANSFIELD, Mass. -- The highly-anticipated matchup between two top-20 teams in this week’s poll went No. 11 Mansfield High’s way, as the Hornets remained red hot with a 71-66 win over No. 19 Franklin Sunday evening at James Albertini Memorial Gym.
The victory was the eighth straight for the Hornets, who had already secured a spot in the MIAA Division I South Sectional Tournament after a 62-34 win over Sharon Friday night.
“Our defense has been the best since I got here,” said Mansfield head coach Michael Vaughn, whose team has yielded an average of just 44 points per game during the win streak. “Early on [this season] you couldn’t have said that. But the team has worked hard and gets rebounds and gets blocked shots when they need to.”
The effort was almost for naught, as the Hornets (12-2, 9-0) had to hold off a rally by the Panthers in the closing minutes, mainly because of some dismal foul shooting. With a chance to put the game away, Mansfield (who shot 19-for-34 from the foul line for the game) instead allowed Franklin to hang around because of a 3-for-10 effort at the line down the stretch.
“I thought we played to not lose instead of to win,” said Vaughn. “You can’t go up by 14 points and then shoot like that at the line down the stretch. I don’t know if we froze there at the end and let them hit a couple of 3’s, but we knew Franklin wouldn’t go away.”
Mansfield was paced by Chris Johnson’s 16 points, but it was senior Michael Lofton who controlled the game, posting a triple-double with 14 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. Terrence O’Mara (11 points), Brian Hershman (10) and Joe Gracia (9) rounded out a balanced scoring attack that saw eight players score at least six points.
“They were mentally exhausted at the end,” Vaughn said. “They executed the game plan and competed out there. Some things didn’t go the way we wanted at the end, and it almost came back to cost us.”
Franklin (11-3, 7-2) lost for the third time in five games. The Panthers did break a two-game losing streak with a pair of wins over Sharon (76-49) and Canton (71-51) earlier this week, but couldn’t crack the Mansfield defense. Kyle Gibson led the way with 21 points, Tyler Kessler added 11 and Tim Garvey contributed 10. The team will have little time to think about the loss, as they face King Philip Tuesday, followed by a rematch with Stoughton Friday night. The Panthers won the first contest in overtime, 79-78, on Dec. 21.
The Hornets remained undefeated in league play with the win, and they haven’t lost since a 53-51 setback to Brockton Jan. 4. But the schedule down the stretch is tough as the team looks to complete an undefeated season in league play, including three road games and contests remaining against the big four – North Attleboro (Tuesday), at King Philip (Friday), Attleboro (Feb. 11) and at Franklin (Feb. 15).
“We have to stay focused at the job at hand and the kids can’t settle,” said Vaughn. “The league title is still on the line, and we have those big four games left. We need to take care of what is in front of us, compete every night and put ourselves in a position to win every night. The job is to get into the tournament, get a home game and see what we can do when we are playing at a high level.”