In a 62-52 season-opening win over visit Milford, the Panthers’ unselfish offense resulted in four players reaching double-figures in the scoring column and their aggressive defense never let the senior-laden Hawks get comfortable.
Maybe more impressive was that the game marked the first meaningful minutes for all but two Panthers — Declan Walmsley (game-high 18 points, six rebounds) and Andrew Byfield (13 points, 13 rebounds). The other seven Franklin players that checked in were experiencing their first meaningful minutes in a varsity game.
“There’s a certain level of expectation we have and guys like [Jake] O’Brien and [Zach] Harvey, they watched as juniors and didn’t get to play very much but they were at practice every day, playing that type of defense and they know how much it means to our team,” said Franklin head coach CJ Neely, who is in his seventh season at the helm of the Panthers. “They don’t just become good defenders all of a sudden because they are seniors, they’ve been working at it, going against really good players in practice so it’s not a total shock when they get the chance to play. These guys are tough, they have good attitudes and they come to work. Defense is something we’re always going to take pride in.”
Walmsley was a steady presence throughout for the Panthers, the top-scoring option returning from last year’s squad that graduated an experienced and talented group of players. The senior hit a three in the opening quarter, earned a trip to the line, and came up with a steal to set the tone for the hosts.
Byfield overcame some early jitters and turnovers to score 10 of his points in the second half. His game-high 13 boards helped limit the visiting Hawks to a total of four offensive rebounds.
To top it off, the Panthers got a big boost from freshman Henry Digiorgio (15 points), who provided a big spark off the bench in the opening quarter with a pair of threes. And when Milford made its biggest run of the game, Digiorgio sank arguably the biggest shot of the game in the third quarter to push the hosts’ lead back to double-digits.
A back-and-forth first quarter had Franklin ahead 15-14, Milford staying in it on the back of senior Jordan Darling (10 rebounds, four assists) who scored nine of his game-high 25 points in the first eight minutes. The Panthers’ defense really shined in the second as they held the Hawks to just five points on 2-of-13 shooting with three turnovers.
“You always want to jump on teams early but we knew Milford has a lot of experience, a lot of guys that have played in big tournament games, guys that won a division title last year…we knew we’d have our hands full but we wanted to be aggressive and make it difficult on their offense,” Neely said. “Getting a couple to go early and getting a lead early at home is nice, and those guys have to just come into the gym with all this stuff going on, maybe they aren’t comfortable right away and we get a cushion early on.”
Meanwhile, Franklin’s offense inched away on some success from three-point range. Walmsley connected early and O’Brien (12 points, four assists) hit two more to push the lead to 24-16. Byfield hit a three in the final minute to give the Panthers a 29-19 lead at the break.
“We weren’t ready to play, period,” said Milford head coach Paul Seaver, also in his seventh season. “Mentally we just weren’t ready to play. [Franklin] hits shots and they defend, and they do it amongst the best teams in the state year in and year out. I’m disappointed right now, we have to be better.”
Milford made its move in the third quarter, hitting a pair of threes — one from Ben Blanchard (10 points) and one from Max Martin (12 points) — in the first 90 seconds of the half after connecting from downtown just twice in the first two quarters.
The Panthers answered with a 7-0 burst when Byfield converted off a turnover and O’Brien used a quick step to get past his defender for an easy two. But Milford continued to claw back as Darling sparked an 8-0 run with a three. Ralph Franklin Jr. got to the rim for two and Martin hit another corner three and the Panthers’ lead shrunk to just 38-33 with two minutes left in the third.
Digiorgio sank a pair of free throws to snap the run, and two possessions later, the freshman sank a straightaway three with the shot clock about to expire and just seconds left in the third to push the Panther advantage back to 10 at 43-33.
“We knew he was a good player, we had seen him play at the Metro level,” Neely said of Digiorgio. “You never know how it will translate to the varsity level but he has confidence which is good. We told him you’re either varsity or not, doesn’t matter a sophomore or freshman. That was a huge bucket.”
An early five points from Darling gave the visitors some hope for a comeback but Byfield, O’Brien, and Digiorgio scored in succession, and the Panthers’ lead never shrunk to single digits again.
“I think being at home will benefit us, I think it’s that type of situation this year,” Seaver said. “It’s a little more of a comfort level given the protocols. But we have to be better. We have to be better in practice tomorrow and we have to be better in the game on Thursday.”