The Colonials, who had trailed for the entire game, rattled off an 8-0 run over a three minute span in the final quarter to take their first lead, 49-48, with 3:31 to play and set their large traveling fan base into a frenzy.
But order was restored over the next three minutes, with Franklin regaining control on the back of sophomore Jalen Samuels, who finished with a career-high 18 points.
After A-B took the lead on a layup from sophomore Austin Zhou (12 points), the Panthers’ offense ran through Samuels. He had two free throws chances but missed them both, only to grab the offensive board himself and earn two more opportunities from the charity stripe. He sank both of them to put Franklin ahead by one.
“We were down, they had a nice run and it got a little tense,” Samuels said. “They switched to man, I didn’t think they guy they had on me could guard me so I drove to the hoop.
“I was focused on the next two [shots]. My teammates were just telling me to take my time, take a deep breath and follow through and everything will be fine. ”
Junior Paul Mahon (12 points, three assists, three steals) hustled back to get a block on a shot from A-B’s Didier Matheier, with the loose ball hitting off his foot to give the Panthers the ball back. Samuels went right back to work, getting around his defender and finishing strong with his left at the rim to make it 52-49 with just over two minutes to play.
A-B pulled within two on a free from Zhou with just over a minute to play, setting up the play of the game from Samuels. With time ticking away on the shot clock, Samuels’ defender was a couple of steps back, almost baiting the sophomore to take the shot. The sophomore – was 1/1 from downtown so far in the game – obliged, pulling up and draining the three to make it 55-50 with 55 seconds to play.
“I think the shot clock was going down,” Samuels said. “The guy guarding me was telling me to take the shoot so I took it, made it. I surprised myself that it went in.”
A-B made it a one possession game with 30 seconds to go but was whistled for an intentional foul – giving Franklin two free throws (Mahon made one to make it 56-52) and the ball. A-B had to foul again, and Mahon hit another free throw to make it 57-52. Matt Elias and Chris Edgehill (10 points) each added a free throw late for Franklin.
“We absolutely expected a tough game,” said Franklin head coach CJ Neely. “We hadn’t seen anything like that all season, size wise. Mansfield is exceptional but they aren’t that size, our league is tough but we don’t have anyone that had that much size.
“It was toughness and tenacity, we won a lot of loose balls at the end of the game. We knew they were big, we knew they had the size advantage on us which isn’t usually something we see. They do a great job of executing, they are like a machine. If you slip up for one second, they get a layup. We tried a bunch of difference defenses on them.”
Franklin built as much as a 10-point lead in the first quarter with the help of strong defense and successful shooting from three point. Edgehill drained one from deep and Mahon hit a pair to help the Panthers to a 17-8 lead after one quarter.
The Panthers kept that lead until A-B was able to cut it down down to five with just a minute to play in the second quarter. James Hanlon responded with a free throw and Mahon added two more to give Franklin a 31-23 lead heading into halftime.
The teams combined for 23 fouls in the first half and nearly 50 in the entire game. Franklin shot 14/26 from the free throw line while the Colonials were 15/27.
“It was a consistent whistle, that’s all you can ask for,” Neely said. “You have to adjust. It’s hard to get a rhythm going.”
Samuels scored seven of his points in the final quarter.
“He hasn’t been a shooter most of the year, he’s been a little hesitant to shoot it,” Neely said of Samuels. “But at shooting drills in practice, he’s always making them. I told him one day you’ll have the confidence to let a big shot go in a game and tonight was the night. We were only up two, he hit some some big shots and he also had some great takes to the gym. When the game was on the line, he took it over. He put them under a lot of stress. It just seemed like one play after the other he was making.
“We knew Jalen had an advantage and he could get to the rim or find some shooters outside.”
Franklin boys basketball (19-4) advances to the D1 Central Semifinal for the fourth straight season. The Panthers will take on #4 St. Peter Marian on Sunday at WPI at 1:00. SPM has three common opponents with Franklin, having beat Acton-Boxboro in January, lost to Malden Catholic in February in an exclusion game and lost to Catholic Memorial in February. The Panthers had the same results against those opponents.