BOSTON, Mass. – Just when it looked like Mansfield was out of new players stepping up and taking control, in stepped junior Khristian Conner.
It’s only fitting that five years to the date, Conner was able to equal the performance his older brother, Kevin, had in the 2013 EMass Final.
The Hornets have had different players take charge throughout their 2018 postseason run: Damani Scott scoring 25 points against Newton South, Tyler Boulter dropping 35 points against BC High and Johnny Mccoy’s MVP performance against Newton North.
And you can’t forget about the tireless work of point guard Sam Hyland, who has continued to make good decisions on the offensive end while shutting down some of the most formidable opponents on the defensive side.
Now with the lights shining brightest, it was Conner that came off the bench and delivered 13 points and three steals to help the Hornets hold off Everett, 73-65.
Mansfield advances to the MIAA D1 State Championship and will take on rival Franklin on Saturday in Springfield with time and exact location to be determined.
It will be the first time in D1 history that two teams from the same league will meet in the state finals for boys basketball.
“This was Khristian’s speed tonight…open floor, get out and take the matchup that’s given to you and go and make a couple of plays,” said Mansfield head coach Mike Vaughan. “He couldn’t have played bigger tonight.
“That’s the make up of our team. Any given night someone can step up and make plays. Tonight was his night. We’ve been talking about. The years we made some runs, back in 2012 and 2013, there were games no one knew who the superstar would be. But if you play good defense and get guys in the right positions, it gives guys opportunities like Khristian.”
Conner’s biggest play came with just over three minutes left in the game. After turning the ball over trying to force a pass baseline, it looked as though Everett had a chance to pick up some momentum and cut into the 10-point deficit.
Instead, Conner hunted the ball down, coming up with a quick steal just seconds after losing possession and went up for an easy two. That gave Mansfield its largest lead of the fourth quarter, 65-53, with 3:29 to play.
On the ensuing trip up the court, Conner used his quickness to get a hand in on the dribble, forcing it to bounce off the Everett player and out of bounds for a turnover. Although Mansfield didn’t score on its turn up the court, the Hornets ran off more time to get under three minutes to play.
“I just stuck with it,” Conner said of the play. “I couldn’t get down on myself because of the turnover so I just focused on defense. Defense is so important especially in this game and I was able to get the stops.”
After McCoy (13 points, five rebounds, four assists) hit one free throw to make it 66-57, Caleb Jacobs answered with a three-point play to get within six with under a minute to play.
McCoy responded with two free throws and Isaiah Likely drive in for two for Everett. The Hornets had a turnover against the Crimson Tide press and Everett cashed in with a putback for two, making it 68-64 with 19.4 to play.
But Scott (17 points, seven rebounds, four assists) hit a pair of free throws, Everett’s Jalen Iles-Smith only made one, McCoy hit another, Everett threw it away and Scott iced the game with two more from the charity stripe to end the game.
“I’ve said all postseason that we’re a really hard team to play when we’re up,” Vaughan said. “All of our stuff seems to work, we’re more comfortable playing, that was a major key. If we could minimize their opportunities in the first and second quarters and get any cushion whatsoever, I think it made a big difference in the outcome of the game.”
Mansfield was able to take the lead between the end of the first and beginning of the second quarters. After going back-and-forth with the Crimson Tide for the first seven minutes, the Hornets finished the opening stanza with a quick surge.
Scott splashed in a three from the left side on a feed from Hyland (nine points, four assists, there rebounds), Vine got out in transition for two, and then Hyland went one-on-one to the basket to beat the buzzer for two to give Mansfield a 21-17 edge after one.
That momentum carried into the second quarter as Mansfield outscored the Tide 13-2 over the first five minutes of the second quarter.
Scott hit two early free throws and then set up Vine in the corner for a trifecta. McCoy had two free throws followed by a strong baseline drive from Boulter. McCoy then followed a free throw with a big three-pointer to make it 34-19 with 2:56 left in the first half.
Boulter and Conner helped carry the Hornets in the third quarter. Boulter drained an early three and had seven of his 14 points in the frame while Conner had two straight baskets, a big steal, and a free throw all in a row for the Hornets.
“All of my teammates were just pushing me to have a good game,” Connor said. “I didn’t do too well in the other playoff games. Coach Vaughan just told me to come out and play your game and I just tried to do that at my best. I love my role on this team, I just have to come out when given the chance and compete. When I make the first couple, my adrenaline was pumping and I just wanted to help the team win tonight.”
Meanwhile, Hyland was at it again on the defensive end. Ghared Boyce, who has over 2,000 career points, scored 22 hard earned points but was held to just 31% shooting with Hyland in front of him.
“Hyland’s been our unsung hero right now,” Vaughan said. “He doesn’t score a lot of points, he takes everyone’s best shot because he has to take the ball up and then he’s getting everyone’s best player [defensively].”
Mansfield boys basketball (26-2) will now take on rival Franklin (23-3), who defeated Springfield Central 61-43, in the D1 State Championship.
The Hornets fell at Franklin on January 12th but have won 17 straight games since, including a 59-47 verdict over the Panthers at home on February 9th.
“First game they whacked us, second game we were in control for most of the game,” Vaughan said. “A league opponent, going out to Springfield. If this isn’t Duke-UNC at its finest in the NCAA tournament, I don’t know what it is. There’s going to be no secrets. We’re going to know who dribbles right, who dribbles left, who’s girlfriend is named what, what brand of underwear they like [they’ll know] what brand of underwear we like. This is going to be one for the ages. I don’t know if any state title has been done from two teams from the same conference.
“We’re 18 minutes from each other and we’re going to drive an hour and 45 minutes to Springfield to do this a third time. The beauty if we both one once so this is the ultimate rubber match. You don’t get a better rubber match than this. We’re going to get Franklin’s best shot. CJ [Neely] is going to do a tremendous job. The emotion is going to be high, the game is going to be high…we’re excited to be here, we’re going to enjoy it and start getting ready tomorrow for a very, very talented and well coached Franklin team.”
The game is scheduled for Saturday in Springfield, with exact location and time still to be determined.