FRANKLIN, Mass. – After the game ended, after the bulk of the crowd had filed out of the gym that only a few minutes before had been packed to capacity, and after speaking with his team in the locker room, Franklin coach C.J. Neely was left to reflect on how different the emotions were for his players this year compared to the last time that the Panthers faced Algonquin.
“It’s total shock,” he explained. “I told the guys that I feel bad because you go into the locker room and try to gather your thoughts somehow and tell them how proud you are of them and how good they played all year and you’re just never really ready for the moment to break that down.”
Last season, Franklin (16-5) beat the Tomahawks to win the Div. 1 Central title on its way to a second straight state championship game appearance. This year, the Panthers hosted Algonquin in the opening round of the tournament and the Tomahawks took advantage of the opportunity to avenge that loss, pulling out a 63-60 thriller.
The visitors made their share of huge shots, whether it was freshman Alex Karaban burying a deep three in the fourth quarter to push the lead to four points or senior Sean Cullen ignoring the Franklin fans behind the basket to drain a pair of free throws with 22 seconds remaining.
But, the Panthers were also their own worst enemies, shooting only 13-of-25 from the free throw line. In a game that came down to the final possession, those missed opportunities were the difference.
“It’s a killer,” Neely admitted. “It’s been kind of an Achille’s heel all season in the games that we’ve lost. We joked around a lot that we’d be undefeated if we made free throws and here we are again. I think we can chalk up another one that we lost at the free throw line, unfortunately.”
When the game tipped off, there was still a long line of people waiting to get in the door, as the atmosphere felt more like a final than the opening round. The teams came out firing like it was a final as well, with Algonquin jumping out to an early 6-0 lead before Franklin answered with six straight of its own.
Sean Leonard scored four points in the first and Jalen Samuels (15 points,10 rebounds, and four blocks in his final game) got the Panthers within one when he drove baseline and finished with a one-hand slam. Chris Edgehill (team-high 20 points) gave Franklin its first lead with a deep three in the final seconds of the quarter.
Algonquin used a 4-0 run to grab a 17-16 lead but Samuels scored back-to-back buckets to get the lead back for the hosts. Another three from Edgehill opened up a five-point lead and then Jack Rudolph hit a pull-up jumper in the lane.
After Edgehill knocked down three free throws, Franklin led by seven, but Karaban scored on an offensive rebound and Brian Duffy (game-high 24 points) buried a three to cut the lead to just two. Samuels drove to the basket to finish the half with Franklin up 32-28, but the Panthers went only 5-of-10 at the line in the quarter and 8-for-16 in the half. Those points that were left on the board would prove costly in the end.
In the third quarter, Rudolph got things started by knocking down a three off a set play. It felt like Franklin was on the brink of breaking the game wide open but instead Brian Duffy (game-high 24 points) caught fire. He knocked down three free throws, drilled a three, and then hit a jumper. His personal 8-0 run put the Tomahawks up one.
Edgehill got into the lane to set up Will Harvey for a layup and then Rudolph hit his second three of the quarter before setting Harvey up for another layup. Rudolph and Harvey combined for all 12 of Franklin’s points in the third, keeping the Panthers up by three heading to the fourth.
“Those guys have been good for us,” Neely said about Rudolph and Harvey. “[Will’s] always been that kind of grinder who doesn’t get the notoriety because he does everything but when you’ve got Chris and Jalen scoring the way they do then you don’t get the chance to score the way he can.”
Duffy continued to have the hot hand in the fourth, tying the game with a three, but it was an unlikely source of offense that gave Algonquin the lead. Cullen had only two points through three quarters and was largely a passenger on offense, but he drilled a three to give the visitors a lead and then scored on a three-point play to extend the lead to four. He scored 10 of his 12 points in the fourth.
Franklin kept battling back. Rudolph stole an errant pass, fed Leonard in the paint and he dished it off to Samuels for a layup that made it 52-51. Edgehill hit a pair at the line to make it 58-57 only to have Karaban come down and bury a deep three to make the deficit four.
Neely said, “That was a big three, NBA distance, from Karaban there at the end and we knew that coming in that he does that. It wasn’t a surprise shot or anything like that but it’s just big guts to take it and make it at that time.”
Edgehill answered with a deep three that made it 61-60, but on the other end he committed a foul with just 13 seconds left on the shot clock and 22 ticks left in the game. Cullen stepped to the line and seemed unfazed by the moment, hitting both right in front of the Franklin student section. While Franklin was struggling at the line, Algonquin was 8-of-10 at the stripe in the second half following Cullen’s makes.
Franklin ran the clock down to 11 seconds before Edgehill hit front rim on a very deep three.
“Chris has made some big shots for us and sometimes if you call that timeout the defense really gets the chance to set itself,” Neely said of the decision not to call a timeout on that possession. “I thought he had been able to really create space for his own shot tonight and made some big ones and it’s always that question mark whether you call it or not and let the game play out.”
A foul on the rebound put Algonquin at the line with a chance to seal the win. Ironically, the visitors missed them both and Franklin got one last chance to extend the game.
Samuels snatched the inbounds pass away from a defender at mid-court, but he couldn’t get an off-balance heave to the rim and the Tomahawks bench stormed onto the court to celebrate.