FRANKLIN, Mass. – Even though Franklin and Mansfield are now competing in separate divisions, the rivalry remains between the two programs and the expectations remain for a tough, physical matchup. It may not be the prettiest game, but it’s guaranteed to be competitive.
On Tuesday night in Franklin, the two teams met for the only time this winter. The game was back-and-forth from the opening whistle, with eight ties and 15 lead changes. Through the first three quarters no team managed to lead by more than five points. Franklin went on an 8-0 run in the final minute of the game, extending the lead to double digits, and that was enough to hold off the Hornets for a 63-55 win.
“We tried to get them out of their sets,” Franklin coach John Leighton explained. “Obviously, they still scored a lot of points, but I think they had to grind a little bit more for them. That was the kind of game we wanted.”
Asked about the importance of being challenged like the Panthers were on Tuesday, Leighton replied, “It’s huge. This what playoff basketball feels like. We want to play way better than this when we get there, but this gets you ready for it.”
The game promised to be close not only because of the rivalry but also because both teams came in playing well. Franklin was riding a five-game win streak that allowed the Panthers to take a slim lead in the Kelley-Rex, while the Hornets were on a six-game streak to turn around a tough start that saw them win just once in their opening five games.
It was scrappy from the opening tip. The Panthers grabbed a 6-2 lead in the first quarter after Katie Peterson (17 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, and two blocks) hit a baseline jumper and drove to the rim.
Mansfield responded with an 8-0 run of its own. Natalya Gill (13 points and seven rebounds) hit a runner, Abby Wager (15 points and three blocks) went coast-to-coast after a defensive rebound, Ella Palanza drove through the lane for a bucket, and Bridget Hanley (seven points and three assists) swooped in for a lefty finish.
Sasha Tracey came off the bench and knocked down a three-pointer to bring Franklin within one and Peterson’s buzzer beater was halfway down but spun out, as the Hornets led 10-9 after one.
Gill was a big spark off the bench. She started the second with a three to put Mansfield up four. and Kara Santos (15 points and six rebounds) grabbed a put-back to make it 15-11. Franklin wouldn’t get too far away, as Caelyn Leonard (eight points and six boards) drilled a three to cut the lead to a point.
Wager answered with a three that would make it 23-19, but Lizzie Newman (six points, seven rebounds, and two blocks) cut through the lane for two and Peterson twice found driving lanes to put the hosts in front. Gill responded again, burying a corner three that made it 26-26.
“Franklin’s speed is tough to compete with and then they add the size with it,” Mansfield coach Heather McPherson said. “Natalya came in first shift and worked on the boards and worked defensively and then hit some shots. I think that’s what makes us dangerous is we’ve got Kara and Abby but we do a good job switching up who gives us those other points every night.”
After a couple of free throws, Franklin had one more chance. Peterson drove and kicked to Chloe Fales (14 points and six rebounds) in the corner and the sophomore beat the buzzer with a three to send the Panthers into the locker room up 29-28.
Gill got the second half started with a bucket to regain the lead but Newman answered on the other end. Wager drilled a corner three to make it 36-33 but Peterson scored in the paint and Bridget Leo (10 points and three assists) turned a steal into a layup. Fales then buried another shot from deep to put Franklin up 40-38.
Leo forced another turnover and converted it for two points, but Santos, who had six points in the third, got free on an inbounds play for an easy bucket. Again Franklin got a big three late in the quarter. This time it was Tracey, who made it 45-40.
“They were trying to frustrate us and that was the game plan, but we needed to be opportunistic and we needed to be patient enough to let it happen,” Leighton said. “The first half we forced so many early looks. Once we got better looks, we were good, just had to wait for those opportunities. That’s what I love about Sasha, when she’s open, she’s ready to take the shot.”
Any momentum was quickly stifled by the Hornets, as Gill started the fourth with a three on a kick-out by Olivia Salisbury and Wager used her reach to force a steal and finished on the other end. Peterson made sure that Franklin wouldn’t fall behind, pulling up for a contested jumper in the lane and grabbing an offensive rebound for two.
Wager hit a long two, but Franklin rattled off six straight, with Fales getting a pair of baskets, including one off a Newman steal and long outlet pass. Hanley kept Mansfield in the game, knocking one down from the corner to cut the lead to 55-50 and Santos made a nice baseline drive to get within three.
Peterson came up with maybe the biggest play of the game with 1:09 on the clock. Leonard missed the front end of a one-and-one, but Peterson was able to rise highest to snatch the rebound. Fales then made a nice pass across the lane to Leonard for a huge basket.
Franklin would add the next six points, making good stops on one end, crashing the boards, and knocking down free throws on the other. It wasn’t expected to be easy, but it was the type of game that both coaches knew would benefit their teams in the long-run.
“I thought we battled,” McPherson said. “I was really impressed with how we played and I think coming from the beginning of the season to now, we’re so much improved. We’re looking to compete.”
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