Prep finishes strong, punches ticket to D1 final

BOSTON -- Mansfield scored seven points in the first quarter, all by senior Jeff Hill. In the second quarter when the St. John’s Prep Eagles’ section in the TD Garden chanted “sin-gle dig-it!”, there is a chance that may have been in response to Mansfield coach Mike Vaughan being quoted this week as saying that defense could be deemed a “weakness” of the Prep.

Although they were able to avoid a total thrashing, the St. John’s Prep defense put on a clinic and stunned the Hornets who were unable to score consistently, finally dropping in a 64-55 decision that put the Eastern Mass Division 1 title on a course to the Spring Street campus.

“I guess I misspoke a little,” said Vaughan. “I meant if they had a weakness, that was where it was at.”

Mansfield’s usual offensive leader scorer, Michael Lofton, was kept to 10 points, five of those coming in the fourth quarter.

“Coach prepared [us] for them, but he didn’t really talk about them being that good at defense, just offensive wise,” said Lofton. “He knew that our defense would be able to beat their offense, but unfortunately their defense was pretty good tonight.”

St. John’s Prep (24-1) coach Sean Connolly prescribes to the "Understanding by Design" method used by teachers: choose your desired outcome first, and then implement the necessary exercises to produce the desired result.

“We wanted to work him (Lofton) the full court all day and pressure him… try to wear him out a little bit,” said Connolly. “Connor Macomber did a very good job on him throughout the game.”

The leading scorer for Mansfield (24-3) was Hill with 20 points. In the fourth, with 5:59 left, Hill scored off of a Joseph Gracia assist to cut the Prep's lead to 44-41. Connolly called a timeout, but the Prep players had internal conversations before he addressed the huddle, according to Notre Dame-bound senior forward Pat Connaughton (23 rebounds, 15 points, five steals, five assists).

“Before coach started talking, everyone paused and I think everyone thought the same thought,” said Connaughton. “That was really like a time check. ‘We got here, are we satisfied with just getting here or are we trying to do what we’ve been saying we’re going to try to do all season?’”

Although Lofton got another steal and Hill scored on a drive to the hoop off of the outlet pass to make the game 44-43 with just over five minutes to go, the score slowly spaced out from that point. With 2:45 to go, Steve Haladayna (20 points, six rebounds) scored on a Connaughton assist to make the game 52-47. On the next trip to the basket, Connaughton drained two free throws to spread the lead out to 7.

Mansfield would come closer, within six on a Lofton score with 1:03 left to make it 57-51, but sophomore Kevin Conner and senior Daniel Dion would be the sole Hornets to score in the last minute; the rest of the team was stifled by the Prep’s swarming defense. Connaughton felt that although Mansfield worked their way back into the game, his team was not sticking to their game and that contributed to the potential comeback.

“We were just trying to hold the lead, but that’s not how we play,” said Connaughton. “We play to try to extend the lead, we play aggressively and that’s how we built the lead in the first place, so why not go back to that?”

Sophomore Isiah Robinson had eight points, seven rebounds, two steals and a block for the Prep. He was not a staple in the lineup in the beginning of the season, but as time has passed, so he has grown.

“He’s getting better and better everyday,” Connolly said. “He’s a big body, he rebounds well, got good post moves, so it’s just a matter of him finding his rhythm. We’ll probably be running a lot of offense through him next year.

“I felt like I should step up and make some plays out there,” said Robinson. “I know that I am a sophomore, but I felt I could go out there and do it; coach believes in me and the team believes in me.”

Freddy Shove also scored seven points and had three steals for the Eagles.

“He’s just all over the place,” said Connolly. “He works hard, he sprints after rebounds, he defends, he boxes out, he’s a very physical kid. He does all the little things that don’t show up on the stat sheet a lot.”

“They’re deep, they’re talented and they give you a lot of different options,” added Vaughan, saying that there is a good reason why the Eagles were predicted to win the state title during the preseason. “They don’t sub to weaken, they sub to reload and tonight was no different.”