STOUGHTON, Mass. -- Marcus Middleton is considered Stoughton's best on-ball defender, if not one of the best such south of Boston, and perhaps that still holds up when he's only able to give it 80 percent.
That was head coach John Gallivan's diagnosis when the two crossed paths in the school hallway at 10 this morning, the junior off-guard unable to practice the previous two days with flu-like symptoms, and still feeling a bit groggy.
"I talked to him, he said 'How ya doing?', he was sucking down a Powerade," Gallivan recalled. "And then he said 'I'm fine, I'm ready to go'."
One hundred percent, 80 percent, no matter, Middleton turned in another vintage performance for the Black Knights in their win tonight over the red-hot Franklin Panthers, snapping the Panthers' 10-game win streak with a dominant 81-60 win before a packed house at Stoughton High's gymnasium.
Chasing Franklin's leading scorers Sam Bohmiller and Joe Palazini, and having to constantly plow through perimeter screens to get it done, Middleton did his job in keeping coach Dean O'Connor's patented flex offense from getting going. On the offensive end, he led all scorers on the night with 26 points, 19 of them coming in the first half as the Knights (13-1) jumped out to nearly a 20-point lead at the break.
"He's a physical specimen," Gallivan said. "I keep asking him, 'Are you tired?', 'Are you OK?', and he says, 'Yeah coach, leave me alone, I'm fine'. And that's a kid who had a stomach virus for two days this week, so imagine what he's like when he's completely healthy."
Heading into tonight, the Panthers (10-4) were the Hockomock's hottest team, winners of 10 straight, and scoring upsets over No. 11 Mansfield and No. 9 King Philip in the last week and half to punctuate their good fortunes. But with an explosive second-quarter run, the Knights doused those flames in a snap.
Up 22-15 to start the stanza, Stoughton opened up the quarter with a 13-2 run, keyed by three-pointers from Middleton and junior point guard Aaron Calixte (19 points, nine rebounds, eight assists). O'Connor tried fanning the flames with various presses, but that ended up playing into the Knights' hot hand.
After Calixte's first trey of the period, O'Connor called timeout, and the Panthers returned to the floor in a 1-1-2-1 full court press. Calixte funneled the ball down to the right corner, where Joe Bunce-Grenon nailed a baseline three. Out of the next timeout, the Panthers showed a 1-3-1 three-quarter press, and again the Knights broke it with deep perimeter shooting, this time Middleton knocking down his second trey of the quarter.
Calixte capped the run with a walk-up three with under a minute to go, giving the Knights a perfect 5-for-5 quarter from three-point range. Stoughton outscored Franklin 24-13 in the quarter to take a 46-28 halftime lead.
O'Connor admitted going from Tuesday's battle with King Philip -- which generates offense off of penetration from 6-foot-8 stretch forward Jake Layman -- to game-planning for the uptempo Stoughton attack in less than 48 hours had its challenges.
"King Philip, we wanted to spread them out, and wanted to dribble-drive," O'Connor said. "These guys, they got more quickness than we do, whereas we had the quickness advantage against KP. So, I think we expended a lot the other night, both physically and emotionally, but Stoughton's a hell of a team. They played like we did the other night, and we didn't match that level tonight."
Jason McKie led the Panthers with 12 points, while Bohmiller chipped in with 11.
Middle Man: After this two-game swing, it's pretty clear who the X-factor is on this Stoughton team. Tuesday night, with Middleton battling aforementioned illnesses, the Knights struggled to overcome a 4-10 Foxborough squad, winning 62-55.
Tonight, with a somewhat healthier Middleton, the Panthers were held to just over 30 percent from the field in the first half, and the Knights held a 46-25 advantage on the boards.
"It's a great energy for Marcus to come in and [take on] the best player on the court," Calixte said. "We know he's our best defender, and he always does a great job. He doesn't let us down."
Interest for Calixte picking up: Besides the obvious proximity of Boston College, the Atlantic Coast Conference has had a history with the Hockomock League, going back to the late 1990's with North Attleborough's Mike Babul (Georgia Tech) all the way up through this year with King Philip senior Jake Layman, who signed with Maryland last November and is currently ranked the No. 61 overall senior in the country.
Another potential ACC-to-Hockomock connection appears to at least be in its infancy. Gallivan confirmed with ESPNBoston.com tonight that coaches from the University of Maryland have reached out to him recently, inquiring about Calixte. The electric junior point guard already has mid-major Division 1 interest, with Towson University extending a scholarship offer.
It'll be interesting to see if any legs develop here, or if it is merely due diligence. Layman, one of the Terrapins' prized recruits, has raved both publicly and privately about Calixte's skills, and there is a local tie with Leominster native and St. Bernard's High alum Scott Spinelli on Maryland's staff. Spinelli was among the first to recruit Layman while at Texas A&M, and when he came over to the Terps alongside then-Aggies head coach Mark Turgeon as Gary Williams' replacement, the Terps jumped to the top of Layman's list of suitors.