With just over two minutes to go in a tied game, Taunton senior Wesner Charles found an open lane for an easy layup to give the 14th-seeded Tigers a 58-56 lead. And on Mansfield’s ensuing trip up, Charles came up with a block that gave the Tigers the ball back and all of the momentum in front of a packed crowd inside the Rabouin Field House.
But the Tigers couldn’t slam the door shut on the second-seeded Hornets, as a potential dagger three rimmed out. And there aren’t many teams better at making you pay than the Hornets.
Senior Tommy Dooling (19 points) launched a corner three that bounced twice off the rim before falling, putting the Hornets up by one with 1:34 to go. Taunton couldn’t answer as a three-point shot was off the mark, and Mansfield sophomore TJ Guy (career-high 19 points, eight rebounds) concerted off his own miss with 44.5 seconds left to put Mansfield up 61-58.
“We started the second half pretty well but [Taunton] came back and the crowd got pretty loud,” Dooling said. “We kept telling each other it was going to be okay, we stuck with what we do well. Sam Stevens had a nice screen and Damani [Scott] had a nice pass and I shot the three, it hit every part of the rim then finally went in, that felt great.”
The Hornets got the stop they needed, Guy broke free for another layup and Mansfield came out with a hard-fought 65-59 win over a gritty Tigers team.
With the win, the Hornets advance to their third straight Division 1 South Sectional Final, and seventh appearance in the last 10 years in the game.
“When the wheels started falling off, with this atmosphere, I was a little nervous with how some of our young guys, guys that haven’t been here before, were going to respond,” said Mansfield head coach Mike Vaughan. “We looked panicked there for a little bit. But I reminded them ‘Don’t get too high, don’t get too low, come out and do what we do’ and we needed a couple of possessions of basket, stop, basket, stop, and we were able to do that.
“Taunton is playing really good right now, they were not going to go down easy. They were ready for the big moment, and a couple of bounces things might go the other way. Taunton did some good things in that second half.”
It was a close game throughout as the Hornets had a brief eight-point advantage in the first half, and led by only seven at one point early in the second half. Taunton had an early 11-8 advantage but didn’t take another lead until midway through the fourth quarter.
A three-pointer from Sam Stevens that came off an offensive rebound had the Hornets up 51-48 entering the fourth quarter. Free throws from Taunton senior John Martins (14 points) got the Tigers within two but Damani Scott answered with a strong take for the Hornets. A free throw from Lou Vendrell followed by a steal and bucket from Naz Kenion (career-high 20 points) knotted the score at 53-53.
Kenion continued his stellar play with a nice move baseline to give the Tigers a 55-54 lead, their first advantage of the second half. Kenion came up with a steal to get Taunton the ball back, but the Tigers missed a three. A free throw from Kenion extended the lead to 56-54, and Charles knocked away a pass to get the Tigers another chance to extend the lead, but Taunton’s layup was off the mark. Mansfield tied the game on the other end as sophomore Matt Boen had a layup off a feed from Drew Rooney.
“I thought we played great defense. It felt like we took them off the three-point line for the most part, which is a lot of their offense, But as usual, they adjust and they didn’t panic. If you’re not composed for 32 minutes, you make a mistake, they take advantage of it, that’s Mansfield.
“A game of inches, I think it came down to three plays in the end. Two offensive possessions on our end that we didn’t do well with, and one blown defensive possession. All of a sudden, it’s six points, and that feels like an insurmountable lead against them.”
The two teams battled back-and-forth in the opening quarter with Taunton jumping ahead 11-8 behind a three-pointer from Dante Law (nine point, seven rebounds) but Dooling had a pair of triples and Guy added six points to help the Hornets take a 17-14 lead after one.
Mansfield extended its lead to 22-14 — the largest lead of the game by either side — but Taunton clawed back into it. Sophomore Tyler Stewart came off the bench and scored four points, Law added four more, and Kenion scored his first seven points of the game, including a late three-point play to bring the Tigers within two, down 31-29 at half.
Martins sank two free throws to open the second half to tie the game but the Hornets grabbed momentum back with a 10-3 spurt. Stevens converted a putback, Boen and Dooling hit consecutive threes, and Guy scored down low for a 41-34 advantage.
Taunton ramped up its defensive pressure to get back into the game. Martins scored off a steal, and minutes later, Kenion and sophomore Danny MacDougall had back-to-back takeaways that led to layups to tie it at 46-46 with 2:34 left in the third quarter.
“They were a lot more disciplined. Sometimes you can get them on back cuts or dribble handoff action, and we didn’t get any of those,” Vaughan said of Taunton’s defense. “We really had to score the old fashion way and gut through some possessions. Even on offense too, this was probably the most disciplined Taunton team I’ve seen on both ends of the floor, they really bought in to what [Coach Dacey] was selling. It made it brutal. When guys do that, you can’t go on runs, you can’t create separation, it makes it tough.
“All the threes we got were either contested, or we got them off half broken plays.”
For Taunton (15-9), it was an end to a playoff run that saw upsets over league rival Attleboro and former league rival Bridgewater-Raynham.
“We discovered something, I don’t know exactly what it was,” Dacey said. “We work, work, work a lot on defense in practice. It clicked against Attleboro, then again against B-R, it’s something we’ve been looking for all year long.
“It hurts, it should hurt, and hopefully it’s a lesson for the underclassman. We have to get kids to want to be in the gym in the offseason. This was fun, so I hope the guys coming back realize it and say we can be here [again], but you have to put the work in.”
Mansfield boys basketball returns to Taunton High on Friday to take on #5 Newton North (20-5). Newton North defeated the Hornets in the regular season on February 10th. The D1 South Final is set to tipoff at 7:30.