WORCESTER, Mass. – After overcoming a rough first quarter against Holy Name in the Div. 1 Central semifinal, Franklin wanted to make sure that it got off to a better start in Friday night’s final at Worcester State.
The Panthers dominated on both ends of the floor, scoring the first nine points of the game and building a 16-5 lead after one. Natick never got closer than eight points for the remainder of the game. Franklin showed off its experience on the big stage, and its defensive prowess, to pull out a 53-38 victory and win its second straight Div. 1 Central crown.
“That was super hard,” Franklin senior Megan O’Connell said of the tough start to the semifinal. “My stomach was in my throat that game. This was a lot better. We got up by a lot, but in the third quarter it fell apart and then we got it back. We want to keep moving on and it’s survive and advance right now.”
Franklin coach John Leighton admitted that there was a focus on starting better than the Panthers did at WPI and he brought in some reinforcements to talk to the team. Kristen McDonell, the current Norwood boys and former Braintree girls coach (who twice coached the Wamps to wins over Franklin in sectional finals), spoke to the Panthers about staying the course even if things don’t go well in the opening few minutes.
“We talked a lot about the fist five possessions, try to get everyone a touch, defense force them into a quick thing,” Franklin coach John Leighton explained. “I thought we did that tonight, got off to a good start and built confidence.”
“Having played in this gym and feeling the pressure,” he added, “when it’s new, the lights are brighter, the crowd is bigger, you feel the difference.”
It turned out, there was no reason for concern. O’Connell got the game started directly from the opening tip, as she drove to the basket for the game’s first points. Olivia Quinn (16 points and seven rebounds) drilled a three and then Ali Brigham (17 points, 12 rebounds, and five blocks) stepped beyond the arc to bury one as well.
The Panthers had gotten off to the ideal start. Natick’s Yale-bound forward Brenna McDonald scored four points in the first, but Quinn got free on a kick-out by Erin Quaile for a jumper and Franklin went 6-for-8 at the line to build an 11-point advantage.
Quinn continued her strong play in the second, leaking out for a layup on an Emma Sousa look-ahead and then making a nice backdoor cut to get a perfect pass from Quaile for a layup. She also lined up against McDonald and did her best to contain Natick’s star.
“She’s tremendous,” O’Connell said about her teammate. “She worked so hard in the off-season, so she deserves this more than anything and I love to see her confidence.”
Natick was hanging around in the second quarter, but the Panthers continued to find ways to score. Brigham knocked down a short jumper and then got a layup after a nice post entry from O’Connell. Elizabeth Wilson came off the bench and closed out the first half by burying a three after a nice Brigham skip pass and the Panthers raced into the locker room up 28-13.
“I thought we came out ready to play tonight,” said Leighton. “I thought our defense was really, really good. Brenna is a special player but we tried to make her work for every look she got.”
It looked like Franklin forgot its game in the locker room at halftime, as the Panthers managed only six points in the third quarter. Thankfully for the Panthers, they continued to play tough defense and allowed only nine on the other end.
McDonald scored six of her 19 in the third, including a defensive rebound that she turned into a coast-to-coast layup and that cut the lead down to nine. Wilson (nine points) again came up with a crucial basket to close out the quarter, as she nailed a big three that extended the lead back up to 12. She also added the first three points of the fourth to make it 37-22.
“She’s been a spark,” Leighton said of Wilson’s play in recent games. “Elizabeth’s always been a good shooter, but it’s her defense. She came in and got two stops and then knocked down that three. When you have kid who can come in and do both, we really have six starters at this point. She’s been clutch.”
The Redhawks would not go quietly. They knocked down three shots from deep in the fourth and got the lead to as little as eight points, 42-34, but the Panthers closed on an 11-4 run and knocked down 11-of-13 free throws over the final eight minutes to secure the victory and the title.
After Wilson scored the first three points, McDonald and Jenna Forman knocked down back-to-back threes to get the lead down to single digits. Brigham answered on the other end, scoring in the paint plus the foul. Point guard Delaney Ross hit a deep, straightaway three but Quinn got two off an O’Connell feed to put Franklin up 11.
Three straight, all at the line, got Natick within eight but Quinn returned the favor to set up O’Connell for a finish at the rim. Franklin scored its next nine points at the line, including four from Brigham and four from Quaile.
Leighton said, “I’m proud of kids. Before a year and a day ago, we had won zero sectional championships and to win two back-to-back is incredible.”
O’Connell added, “It feels great, but I want a state championship though. We are so focused. We’re still competing every time that we step on the floor and we want this.”
Franklin (24-0) will face West champion Minnechaug, which upset Springfield Central, in the state semifinal. The game’s date, time, and location are to be determined.
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