NORTH EASTON, Mass. – When Franklin and Oliver Ames played the first time, almost a month to the day from Friday night’s second meeting at the William F. Nixon Gym, the game was essentially over by halftime. The Panthers turned up the defensive intensity, broke the game open, and then pored it on for a 33-point victory.
The Tigers were determined that it would not be the same result this time around and, despite Franklin extending its lead to as many as 15 in the third quarter, pulled within five points with only four minutes remaining in the game.
With the crowd getting loud and momentum with the home team, Franklin junior Matt Elias (eight points) drilled a clutch three to extend the lead back to eight, Josh Macchi snatched an offensive rebound for a bucket, and then Connor Peterson dropped a pass to Jalen Samuels under the basket for the hoop and the foul.
The Panthers made the plays they needed to down the stretch, holding off the OA comeback and pulling out a 64-52 victory that keeps Franklin tied with Mansfield at the top of the Kelley-Rex division (with the two teams set to square off next Friday).
“We said that we wanted to come out and open that lead a little bit coming out of halftime and we were able to do it, but credit OA,” said Franklin coach C.J. Neely. “They kept fighting and got back into it and I think we made some big plays when we needed it.”
OA coach Don Byron got the reaction, if not the final result, that he was looking for from his team after the tough loss to the Panthers in the first meeting.
He said, “It was a good fight wire-to-wire. Not too disappointed in it; glad they showed the fight after being embarrassed first time around.”
The Tigers got off to a strong start with Dylan Mahoney (team-high 17 points) and Nick Welch (16 points) each scoring five in the first and Jack Spillane drilling a three to give OA a 13-12 lead. Peterson (10 points, 10 rebounds) got the Panthers going with seven in the first and Samuels (12 points) added four, as Franklin closed the quarter on a 14-5 run to grab a 17-13 lead.
Franklin added the first four points of the second quarter but Mahoney answered with a shot in the lane and Matt Muir buried a three to keep OA within five. Macchi (12 points, seven rebounds) snagged a steal for a layup and then Samuels closed the half with a put-back in traffic for a 10-point advantage at the break.
Neely said, “We really rebounded the ball at both ends of the floor. We got on the offensive boards and got some second opportunities and we were able to secure most of the defensive rebounds. I thought that was a huge part of the win tonight.”
At the start of the third, it looked like Franklin was about to pull away for another big win. Peterson scored off an offensive rebound and Macchi drilled a three off a Paul Mahon assist. Macchi added an up and under move in the lane to make it 37-22.
After four straight from the Tigers, freshman point guard Chris Edgehill (team-high 15 points) drilled the first of his two threes in the quarter to keep the lead at double digits. Carter Evin (nine rebounds), who missed the first game with Franklin due to injury completed a three-point play to make the score 43-35, but Elias came through with a buzzer-beating layup off a Mahon pass to keep it a 10-point game heading to the fourth.
“They’re not easy to play against obviously,” said Byron. “They have good inside presence, they flood you on the offensive glass, they run deep, the guards played well, there’s a lot of things to contend with out there.”
Neely was not at all surprised that the second meeting was much tougher than the first. He said, “They didn’t have Carter last time; he’s a high-level player. He creates a lot of different matchup situations that we didn’t have to deal with last time. They’ve got a nice team and the zone works for them.”
A couple of Welch free throws and a layup for Jake Erlich started the fourth well for OA but Peterson kicked it out for a Connor Goldstein three. A pair of free throws from Edgehill pushed the lead back to 12, but OA made one last run at the win.
Mike Graziano swung a pass over to Welch for a three to cut the lead to 51-42. Mahoney followed with a three of his own and then drove to the basket to make it 52-47; he scored eight of his 17 in the fourth.
“It went to 15 and we got it to five and against a team like that, which defends as well as they do…making runs against some teams happens because there’s a lot of back and forth and up and down, but not too much with these guys,” said Byron.
Needing a big shot, Franklin swung the ball around to Elias and the junior delivered with the three that stemmed the tide.
Neely said, “Matt was in a little bit of a…not a funk, but he hadn’t been playing his best ball the last two or three games and we told him to just go back to being himself and have fun…It’s good to see him hit a couple because it just makes us that much better.”
The win was an important one for the Panthers, who are battling to win their second straight league title (they shared it with Mansfield last season).
“It’s stressful, but it’s good to be in the position we’re in,” said Neely. “I’m happy about that but every possession seems to mean more and more and we try to stay as focused on the moment as we can because you have to worry about this game.”