MANSFIELD, Mass. – It was one of those nights when the ball just wouldn’t go through the hoop. Right from the start, with several missed layups in the opening quarter, it was clear that offense was going to be a struggle for Mansfield in its Div. 1 South opening round game against Whitman-Hanson at the Albertini Gym.
The Panthers led 41-34 midway through the fourth quarter and it seemed like Mansfield’s run of four straight semifinal appearances was going to come to an abrupt end, but then senior guard Mady Bendanillo knocked down a three from the left wing and there was a sudden burst of energy in what had been a largely quiet gym for this early evening tip.
Erin Daniel missed a three, but stepped in to grab the offensive rebound and finish to cut the Whitman-Hanson lead to just two. On the next defensive possession, Kara Bendanillo grabbed a defensive rebound and threw an outlet to Emily Vigeant for a breakaway layup that tied the game at 41-41 with 3:12 on the clock.
The game stayed deadlocked until the final minute. Mady Bendanillo (game-high 18 points) knocked down the front end of a one-and-one to put the Hornets ahead for the first time since early in the third quarter and she proceeded to knock down three more at the line while the Mansfield defense clamped down to escape with a 45-41 win.
“I don’t really know what the spark was but once we got going everyone fed off it and we got some fast break points,” said Mansfield coach Mike Redding. “Mady started taking over off the dribble. We just kind of hung in there, hung in there, and hung in there and were finally able to get some stops and rebounds.”
When asked what turned the game around for the Hornets, Bendanillo replied, “I don’t even know. We thought Erin had the and-one on the rebound and then Emily got free for a wide open layup and our defense came alive and I don’t think they scored again.”
The win was sealed at the line, but early in the game it was only free throws that were keeping the Hornets afloat. There were only four made field goals combined between the two teams in the first quarter, but Mansfield’s aggressiveness going to basket was rewarded with 10 trips to the line. The Hornets made seven, including 3-of-4 from Sydney Mulkern (her only points of the game), to take an 11-8 lead after one.
Whitman-Hanson started to find an offensive rhythm in the second, scoring 17 points and knocking down three from beyond the arc, including a pair from Anna O’Neill off the bench. Steph Kemp scored her lone points on a drive and Mady Bendanillo drilled her first three of the night, but an 8-2 run to close out the half put the Panthers ahead 25-22 at the break.
“We defended well but just didn’t rebound well and gave them too many second chances,” Redding said. “They were aggressive defensively and we never got into a rhythm on offense.”
Mansfield came out of the locker room with urgency and four straight points by Maggie Danehy (15 points) put the Hornets ahead 26-25. It would be their last lead until the final minute of the game.
The Panthers again found the range from deep, with Olivia Martin nailing a pair and Brittany Gacica (13 points) hitting one as well. Mady Bendanillo answered with one of her own, off an assist by her sister, but it was the visitors that headed into the fourth quarter with momentum and a 37-32 lead.
Bendanillo got a steal and an assist on a layup for Danehy that gave the Hornets a spark to start the final quarter but again the offense stalled and the Panthers stayed in control. Mansfield’s defense (and its ability to rebound) improved in the fourth quarter, precipitated by a switch from a trapping zone to man-to-man. Mansfield held the Panthers to just four points in the fourth.
“At least man-to-man you know who you’re boxing out and we did a good job of closing out on people and we got Maggie on [Gacicia], so she wasn’t getting any rebounds and they weren’t getting the second chance points they did in the first half.
“I think a lot of the seniors stepped up,” Bendanillo said. “We definitely didn’t want this to be our last game. We wanted to face Braintree again. They’ve crushed us twice, so we want another shot at them.”
In the end, Mansfield (15-5) had just enough to get through the first round and will make its sixth straight trip to the quarterfinal. The Hornets will square off with third-seed Braintree on Friday night. It is the third straight year that these two teams will meet, having played in the South semifinal last season and the South final in 2017, both won by the Wamps.
“They were outplaying us and we kind of stole this one, but we’ll take it and move on,” Redding admitted.
He added, “This is tournament basketball. It’s just survive and move on, but we’ve got to play a lot better Friday night up at Braintree. We better find a way to score some points. It’s fun. We get another chance to knock them off.”