No. 9 Mansfield stays perfect in the Hock

FRANKLIN, Mass. -- Franklin boys basketball coach Dean O’Connor, livid over a non-call under the basket on a blocked shot by Mansfield’s Michael Lofton Tuesday night, turned his attention away from the officials and he and Mansfield coach Mike Vaughan exchanged a loud, bitter shouting match from their respective coaching boxes.

After the handshake line, O’Connor, still upset over the officiating, told Vaughan, “The free throws must have been 30 to 10 (in Mansfield’s favor).”

Replied Vaughan: “Oh, yeah?”

Translation: “Neat stat. I like the one on the scoreboard better though.” That one read Mansfield 64, Franklin 57, as the Hornets (16-2) remained perfect in the Hockomock League with a 13-0 mark and Franklin dropped to 12-7 overall and 7-6 in the league.

In O’Connor’s defense, his estimates weren’t far off, as Mansfield shot 24 free throws to Franklin’s 10, and he absolutely had a case on the non-call in question that set off the argument around the scorer’s table.

But on a night when Franklin senior Kyle Gibson became the school’s 11th 1,000-point scorer and just the fifth boy to do so -- on Senior Night, no less -- it was the unselfish play of the Hornets’ upperclassmen that staved off a Panther run to start the fourth quarter and finish off a dogged effort by the hosts.

“You come over here, it’s a great atmosphere,” Vaughan said. “It’s a good crowd; it’s Senior Night. You’ve got to kind of battle through a lot of tough possessions. They’re well-coached and they play hard. And this is the hardest place to play in the league I think.”

Leading the way for Mansfield was Lofton, a senior captain who poured in 22 points to go along with 10 rebounds, four assists and two blocks. Also reaching double-figures in scoring were senior Christopher Johnson (11 points, seven rebounds, two assists) and junior Brian Hershman (15 points), while senior Joseph Gracia had nine points on a trio of 3-pointers.

Perhaps the player most indicative of the Hornets’ play was co-captain Jeff Hill, who only had four points, but made five assists and four blocks, including two big ones down the stretch that helped secure the win. Mansfield routinely made the extra pass to get open looks and assisted on 14 of their 20 made field goals.

“That’s the way we’ve been able to play the last couple of years,” Vaughan said. “We’ve got a lot of different guys that can score, a lot of different guys that can play. Tonight’s no different: different guys making different plays on different nights. And that’s why we like to throw extra passes and get extra guys (involved). We feel an unchallenged shot from a little less shooter is better than a challenged shot from our best scorer.”

“We like to have everyone get touches and get everyone involved in the game early so we can have a good start and finish the game out with a win,” Lofton said.

With his team trailing by 10 points, Gibson (22 points, 15 rebounds) laid in a baby hook and was fouled, leaving him at 999 points with a chance to hit the milestone on the charity stripe. He swished it, and the game was stopped for a moment to acknowledge the accomplishment, and it seemed to give life to the Panthers, who were able to slice the deficit down to three points going into the fourth quarter.

“It’s a great opportunity for me. I’m very lucky to play with these teammates,” Gibson said, although noting that losing the game was a “buzz-kill” to surpassing the mark. “They’ve been great all three years I’ve been on the team. It was great. So it was very deserving to get it on Senior Night.”

The momentum carried into the fourth quarter, where sophomore point guard Sam Bohmiller (10 points) had six points in an 8-2 run that had the Panthers ahead, 47-44.

But the Hornets quickly wrested the lead right back on a Gracia triple off a Johnson assist, who then made a steal and layup to push the lead to 50-47. Gracia then found Lofton inside, who laid it in and cashed in on the foul on the shot.

The Panthers were able to slice the deficit down to two and three points but never tied or led the rest of the way, as Mansfield made 9-of-11 from the line in the fourth quarter and Lofton flushed a one-handed jam off an inbounds pass to punctuate the win.

“We just had to gut this one out,” Lofton said. “It was a good win.”