LOWELL, Mass. — Down a pair of starters and matched up against Malden Catholic, the top seed and defending state champions, Mansfield had little room for error in the Division 2 State Championship game.
The Hornets’ impressive season, highlighted by a memorable postseason run, came to a close with a 72-54 loss to the Lancers on the hardwood inside the Tsongas Center on the campus of UMass Lowell.
Although the Hornets were down just nine at the halftime break, Malden Catholic’s relentless effort on the offensive glass paired with some uncharacteristic Mansfield turnovers saw the deficit balloon up to 19 by the end of the third quarter.
“That’s a really, really good Malden Catholic team and we were going to have to play perfect to win,” said Mansfield head coach Mike Vaughan. “We had to try and find a way to play at our tempo and then live in the moment. They came out playing physically and our passes, and we were throwing passes we haven’t thrown since December. They were jumping passing lanes, and even if they were just deflecting it, it just disrupts the offense and your flow.
“The rest of the first quarter we weren’t cutting, we weren’t moving…guys were standing there, with pale faces, blank stares. I’ve been here before, I’ve seen it and I knew it was going to be an uphill battle.”
Malden Catholic’s Nick Martinez drained a three to open the game and was difficult to slow down the rest of the way as he finished with a game-high 28 points and seven rebounds. Mansfield senior JT Veiking scored a team-high 17 points and had nine boards while junior Eddie McCoy chipped in with 14 points.
The Lancers were prepared for Mansfield’s pass-heavy offense and jumped into the passing lanes for a couple of turnovers-turned-transition buckets and a 16-10 lead after eight minutes.
In an effort to disrupt Malden Catholic’s offense, the Hornets deployed a rare zone defense to start the second. It worked as the Lancers managed just one field goal in the first three minutes of the quarter — after three offensive rebounds — but Mansfield’s offense never quite could get in gear and managed just one bucket of their own.
Malden Catholic’s lead reached 12 after a turnover led to a three from Martinez. The Hornets clawed back into it as sophomore Nate Creedon drove to the rim for two, Veiking hit a floater and then finished off a traditional three-point play to get within 26-20 with 1:27 left in the half, but a quick 5-0 surge, including a bucket off another offensive rebound, saw the Lancers carry a 31-22 lead into halftime.
“We were down nine, we held them to 31 points and we gave up nine offensive rebounds and had seven turnovers, and that was the difference,” Vaughan said. “The talk at halftime was…if we could find a way…rebounding is somewhat effort, somewhat a knack for the ball, but it’s also skill. And we were playing a skilled team, of course they were going to rebound well.
“I think our guys were a little shell-shocked by the moment at the start. At the end of the day, when you start getting punched in the face, you have to look in the mirror. I think it took us a minute to absorb it but by that point, we dug ourselves a hole and you can’t dig a hole against [Malden Catholic].”
Mansfield gave Malden Catholic a little bit of its own medicine when senior Chris Hill collected an offensive rebound for a putback for the opening basket of the third quarter but it didn’t take long for the Lancers to get back on the offensive glass in the form of a three-point play from Ben Howard (11 points, nine rebounds). Bo Moody tacked on a three and Howard had another three-point play off an offensive rebound as the Lancers began to distance themselves.
The Hornets lost starting point guard Davon Sanders in the first game of the tournament, and starting forward Trevor Foley — who led the Hornets in scoring during the regular season and is widely regarded as one of the best defenders in the league — has been out for the past three games.
“[Malden Catholic] is talented, they have three legit players,” Vaughan said, “When you do stuff against them, and they can execute and find a kid open in the corner because they are that good, what are you going to do? And unfortunately, we weren’t perfect.
“As much as I don’t want to blame the fact we were down two guys — they are down a starter too — but our system and the way we play, our depth matters to us. When we don’t have that depth, we aren’t able to rotate guys through and continue to be fresh and continue to move.”
Hill had three straight for the Hornets, Veiking splashed in a triple off a pass from McCoy, and Caden Colby (eight points) finished the quarter with a great hustle play, fighting for an offensive rebound and putback at the buzzer but the Lancers’ lead was 53-34 going into the fourth.
“If you look at where we were at in December and where we are now, it’s like a different team,” Vaughan said. “We didn’t have an identity. We were good defensively but we looked like a hot mess on most possessions offensively. We cleaned that up and that takes a commitment from the guys, they had to trust each other. I thought the guys did an awesome job all year. Just the growth we had in one season was just amazing.”
Mansfield boys basketball finishes the season at 25-3.