FRANKLIN, Mass. – One of the strengths of Franklin this season has been different players stepping up at different times. The Panthers are a hard team to match up with because it is hard to pinpoint one player that needs to be shut down.
In Monday night’s Div. 1 Central opener, Franklin’s depth was on full display. Senior guard Brayden Sullivan led the way with a game-high 23 points, including 12 in the third quarter alone, but he had plenty of help. Three players scored in double figures, as the Panthers beat visiting Doherty 77-59 and advanced to the sectional quarterfinal.
“That’s been the strength of ours all season, not having one guy that you come in and shut down and say we’ll stop one guy and be fine,” said Franklin coach CJ Neely. “We have a lot of guys who put it in the hoop and we’ve got a lot of guys who do a lot of different things for us.”
Chris Edgehill (nine points) got the night going by scoring Franklin’s first five points, but then Sullivan started to heat up. He drilled a three-pointer to put the Panthers up 10-7 and then got a steal and a layup, plus the foul, to extend the lead to six. He scored eight points in the first quarter and Franklin grabbed a 17-10 lead after one.
Franklin pushed the lead into double digits in the second. Senior Jack Rudolph scored nine of his 14 points in the quarter, half of his team’s 18 in the period. He drilled a three to make it 24-14 and grabbed an offensive rebound for a basket that made it 30-21. Steve Karayan (seven points) followed with a three to make it a 12-point game.
Doherty came right back with four straight points from Noah Callery (12 points) to cut the lead down to eight and Zac Taylor (16 points) had a steal and breakaway to make it even closer. Sullivan chased down Taylor, rose up with the Doherty guard, and blocked his layup attempt.
With the home crowd at its loudest point of the night, Rudolph took the rebound and turned it into a break for the Panthers, finishing to put the hosts up 35-25 at the break.
“Defensively all year, if he’s not the best defensive player in the Hock then he’s definitely in the conversation,” Neely said of Sullivan. “It’s nice to have a guy every game you can say Brayden go guard the other team’s best player and they’re going to have a tough night. So much of what this team’s made of comes from Brayden Sullivan.”
The Panthers threatened to put the game away in the third quarter, as Sullivan caught fire again. He scored 12 of Franklin’s 17 in the third, helping them build the lead to as many as 19 points,
Leading 37-30, Sullivan went on a personal 12-1 run to break the game open. He cut through the lane and finished at the rim, then took advantage of Doherty sinking under a screen to drain a three. Another drive led to a layup and he got out onto the break as well. He finished the run with another steal and layup.
Neely noted that Sullivan just missed out on being selected as an all-star this year and admitted it may have been extra fuel for Monday’s performance. He said, “I think he had something to prove tonight when he wasn’t selected and we thought that was a little extra something for him tonight. A little extra boost.”
The game seemed to be in control, but the Highlanders made a 9-2 run to make things interesting heading to the fourth. Taylor nailed a pair of threes and then Billy Everson (team-high 20 points) grabbed a rebound and finished just before the horn sounded. It was 52-40 after three.
“We were letting them off the hook on some of our possessions,” Neely explained. “We were taking some quick ones and it’s hard because when we have guys open from three we want them to shoot it but sometimes early in the possession we can get that later on and if we grinded them down a little bit, make them fight through a few more screens, couple more cuts, we could’ve gotten even easier looks.
Everson kept the Highlanders hanging around in the fourth quarter, twice answering Franklin baskets with and-ones on the other end, but the Panthers proved to have too much firepower.
Declan Walmsley was the player to step up in the final stretch. He scored 10 of his 16 points in the fourth. He got a layup off a Thomas Gasbarro assist, then a three when Rudolph swung it around the perimeter to him. After Rudolph made 1-of-3 at the line, Walmsley grabbed the offensive rebound and finished to make it 65-50.
Doherty whittled the lead back down to 10 but Gasbarro responded with a drive to the rim and Edgehill was left open for a corner three that proved to be the dagger.
Franklin (16-5), which won the Central crown in back-to-back seasons before being knocked out in the first round last year by a strong Algonquin team, will now face a trip to No. 3 seed Natick, which had a strong first season under former Franklin assistant Mike Masto.
“That was one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of, unfortunately we were on the wrong side of it,” said Neely about last year’s playoff opener, “but it was nice to get into here and get that off your shoulders. Get yourself into the next round and now we have a huge challenge ahead of us with Natick.”