The Warriors hit three of their first five shots from the floor after being limited to just five total field goals in the first half. And the visiting Panthers had three empty trips and a fourth end in a turnover. Suddenly, Franklin’s double-digit lead was down to just six at 29-23.
Panthers’ coach CJ Neely, who earned his 100th win with Franklin, quickly called a timeout and had a simple message for his squad.
“Just relax,” Neely said of the message. “We just went back to the basics [out of the timeout] and we wanted to get them on their heels.”
And just like that, the Panthers’ defense from the first half was back. Senior Ryan Sullivan (13 points, three rebounds) came up with the steal on one end and senior Matt Lazarek finished off an easy layup after a nice pass from classmate Thomas Gasbarro.
Franklin used an 11-2 over the next three and a half minutes to regain its double-digit lead and never looked back to secure a 63-45 win over King Philip.
“We talked a lot about our defense at halftime and how proud we were with the number we had them at half,” Neely said. “We wanted to continue that obviously but we had some turnovers and they had a quick 7-0 run and all of a sudden they are right back in it. I didn’t think we were sharing the ball like we did during the preseason and I thought tonight all of our biggest baskets were on extra passes. Once the ball started moving, the offense started to click.”
KP senior Robert Jarest was the catalyst of the Warriors’ run, finishing off a layup and then sneaking in for a putback off of an offensive rebound. A three-pointer from senior Owen Conlin made it 29-23.
Franklin’s response featured an alert layup from Rudolph, a strong take from senior Chris Edgehill (21 points, five rebounds, three assists), a three from senior Steven Karayan (11 points), and another finish at the rim from Edgehill to make it 40-25 with 1:32 to play in the third.
“Franklin’s defensive intensity just stayed high and we couldn’t respond and keep up with it,” said second-year KP head coach Dave DeStefano. “We had a couple of turnovers and we lost the momentum that we had. Their defense is on another level, it’s really tough to match. The only time we were comfortably was right out of halftime, we started to play hard and do the things we are good at but we couldn’t maintain it.”
KP senior Andrew McKinney (six points, six rebounds) sank a pull up elbow jumper and junior Donte Barros came off the bench and finished off a layup through traffic plus the harm to get the Warriors within 10.
Edgehill and KP’s Chris Roy traded threes but another layup from Karayan and two technical foul free throws from Rudolph gave the Panthers a 47-33 edge after three.
Declan Walmsley and Brayden Sullivan each hit early fourth quarter three-pointers while KP countered with five points from Alex Fritz (11 points). But yet another three, this one from Karayan off a feed from Gasbarro, helped seal the deal. A three-point play from Rudolph and two each from Edgehill and junior Andrew Byfield helped push the lead to 20.
“I think shooting is one of our strengths this year, which is different from last year,” Neely said. Franklin shot 9-for-27 from three-point range. “We can really spread the floor out, and that’s something we talked about at halftime because we felt we had good shooters passing on open looks. That hurt the flow of our offense. We have a ton of confidence in our guys that can shoot, they just have to be ready to shoot.”
Early threes from Edgehill and Sullivan helped Franklin race out to an 8-0 lead to start the game, holding the Warriors off the scoreboard for over four minutes of action until Roy sank a triple. KP got within two on a three from Fritz but that was the only field goal for the KP senior as the Panthers made sure to give him plenty of attention defensively. Fritz also missed over five minutes in the second quarter due to foul trouble.
Fritz scored a career-high 36 points in KP’s season-opener. Sullivan was tasked with man-to-man defense on him, while Rudolph, Gasbarro, and senior Andrew Cunningham all saw him playing defense on him.
“With a guy like that, it’s not a one-man operation defensively,” Neely said. “Brayden’s been pesky on a lot of guys to start the year but we knew it was going to have to be a team effort. I thought we made his shots difficult. He’s going to make some baskets, and some of the shots he makes are some of the highest level shots I’ve seen in the past couple of years so you just have to make it hard. I thought we did a good job of doing that.”
Franklin lead 14-9 after the first quarter but there wasn’t much rhythm in the second eight-minute frame. The Panthers went to the free throw line 18 times in the second quarter while KP made five trips. Edgehill and Byfield converted from down low early but the Panthers had just one more field goal over the final 6:40, hitting 9-of-18 free throws. Franklin led 29-16 at half.