WORCESTER, Mass. – When the ball swung around to Franklin guard Shannon Gray right in front of the Panthers bench, her teammates started to rise in anticipation of a shot. But Gray hesitated and passed it back up top. Franklin coach John Leighton urged the senior to let it fly when she gets the chance.
Gray heeded that advice and she knocked down a pair of threes on back-to-back possessions to stretch the Franklin lead from just four points to double digits. She knocked down three of her team’s five shots from beyond the arc in the second half, helping the Panthers pull away for a convincing 59-43 victory over No. 2 seed Concord-Carlisle in the Div. 1 Central semifinal at WPI’s Harrington Auditorium.
“We talked at halftime, start like it’s 0-0 and play like we do and the key is to keep reversing the ball,” Franklin coach John Leighton explained. “In the second half, they were just packed in so when we reversed it the kids were just wide open to take the shot and once one goes in that confidence starts coming.”
The Panthers opened the game with a 10-0 run, as O’Connell took advantage of the attention on Brigham in the paint to find driving lanes. Brigham added an and-one off an offensive rebound and had four points in the first, but O’Connell was the aggressor in the paint and on the glass (13 rebounds), scoring 10 of Franklin’s 14 in the first. She finished with 19 points in the game.
“I had a pretty bad game last time and I really just wanted to get back to where I know I can be,” said O’Connell about her aggressive start. Leighton added, “I’m so happy for her because she’s been so patient all year. They were so hyper-focused on Ali that the lane just kept opening up. Early on everyone was a little tentative and she was aggressive.”
The Patriots crept back into the game, trailing by just six after one and then getting as close as two at several points in the second quarter. Franklin was determined to get the ball into the paint and Brigham (game-high 22 points, 14 rebounds, and five blocks) scored all of her team’s nine points in the period, twice scoring on put-backs and twice getting baskets at the rim thanks to O’Connell assists.
While Franklin had the lead at the break, it was hard to envisage a trip to the final with only two players getting on the scoresheet, especially as the Patriots threw a variety of different defenses at Brigham in the post, almost daring the Panthers to shoot from the perimeter. That strategy worked for a half, but Franklin made the Patriots pay in the second half.
After an O’Connell drive for two, Bea Bondhus knocked down Franklin’s first three, and her only shot of the game, to make it 28-21. Concord-Carlisle, which came into the game with only one loss on the season, cut the lead back to just four points but then Gray stepped up and knocked down a pair to suddenly make it a 10-point edge.
“She’s our captain and she leads us in every way,” Leighton said of Gray. “She’s the most selfless kid. She makes us run, her composure…so for her to get a little bit tonight was really nice.”
Leighton added about the team’s outside shooting, “It broke what they were doing. They went into that triangle-and-two to look to pack the paint hoping we wouldn’t make any threes. I think it was vital to break their confidence in what they were doing.”
Again the Patriots rallied with back-to-back buckets, but Brigham answered with a rebound and score and then Teagan Collins finished a break with a scoop shot off the glass. As the clock wound down on the third, Erin Quaile put a punctuation mark on the quarter by drilling a three at the buzzer to give Franklin its largest lead at 43-31.
The Panthers scored nearly as many points in the third quarter as in the first two combined. That offensive barrage continued in the fourth. Brigham got a three-point play on a rebound and then finished off another rebound to make it 49-31.
Corcnord-Carlisle hit back with five straight points, but then the Panthers put the game out of reach. Gray snagged an offensive rebound and made a nice dish underneath to a wide open O’Connell for two. Gray then stepped back outside and nailed her third three-pointer of the afternoon and O’Connell added two more with yet another rebound.
“We just needed to slow down really,” said O’Connell. “We were getting ahead of ourselves and trying to make the perfect pass, but we just needed to make the easy pass and we’d get layups.”
Franklin (20-4) is making a second appearance in the D1 Central final, its first since 2015, and will face the top seed Wachusett.
“It’s definitely a big deal,” said O’Connell. “We’ve been working really hard every day in practice and we’re just trying to get as far as we can.”
Leighton praised his team for meeting its high expectations. “Two years ago, we started 0-6 and I brought the team that year to watch the finals at Worcester State,” he recalled. “We were like, this is where we want to be. This is what lays ahead, if we do what we need to do.”
He added, “For this team, hard work has been the key.”