MANSFIELD, Mass. –- Clinching a tournament berth was nice. Taking over the top spot in the statewide ESPNBoston.com's statewide poll was a great honor. But, winning the league title on its home court was the only accomplishment that mattered to Mansfield on Thursday night.
As the ladder was pulled out and the players one-by-one climbed up to snip off their piece of the net, nothing was going to wipe the smiles off their faces.
The Hornets (17-1) wrapped up first-place in the Hockomock League’s Kelley-Rex division with a hard-fought and at times scrappy 45-41 win over the Taunton Tigers. It was Mansfield’s 12th consecutive win and finished a season sweep of Taunton (13-4), the division’s second best team.
Hornets head coach Mike Vaughan was understandably thrilled at winning another league title, the team’s third in four years.
“We’re excited,” he said. “It was our second goal. The first was getting in the tournament, the second was winning the league and we got it done.”
Junior guard Rocky DeAndrade led the way for the Hornets with 12 points, including a pair of three-pointers. In the midst of having a celebratory cupcake smeared on his face, he explained what the title meant to him.
“The offseason, a lot of the guys were down at the gym knowing that it would pay off. And it did,” said DeAndrade. “There’s definitely a tradition at Mansfield, winning three out of four times is really great. I played with the guys that started the whole thing as a freshman so right now as a junior it feels great. It’s an honor.”
Mansfield got off to a sluggish start as Taunton’s defense did not allow a point for almost five minutes. DeAndrade hit a three for the Hornets first points of the game and cut the lead to 4-3. That was to set a pattern for the game as both teams locked down defensively and neither team managed many open looks.
After managing only six points in the first quarter, Taunton found some rhythm in the second and scored 13. Senior forward Anthony Parker had seven of those points, including a three-pointer at the end of the shot clock that ended a 19-6 Hornets run. Brendan Hill matched Parker with seven of his own and Mansfield went into halftime with a 23-19 lead.
“We’re two of the better teams in the league defensively and when you play good defense it makes the offense look sloppy and that’s ultimately what happened tonight,” explained Vaughan about both team’s struggles to make shots.
He added, “They put just enough pressure on us that it bothered us but not enough that they were giving up backdoors or easy threes. When they did get in transition they were pretty quick to get back and protect the hoop.”
The offensive difficulties continued into the second half. Taunton tied the game at 29-29 on a pair of Fawaz Mass free throws, but junior Kevin Connor finished an old-fashioned three-point play to give the Hornets back the lead heading to the fourth.
Taunton head coach Charlie Dacey marveled at the defense that was being played by Mansfield.
“They’re very, very good defensively,” said Dacey. “We modified our offense, we tweaked it a little bit, but even going at what they were offering us we didn’t capitalize on that either. They chased us right out of our base offense.”
Mansfield built the lead up to as many as 10 points in the fourth quarter by getting a few baskets in transition. Hill had four of his 12 points in the final quarter, but missed all three free throws he took. The dagger for the Hornets was a corner three on the break by sophomore Ryan Boulter that made it 41-31. It was Boulter’s only basket of the game.
Dacey shrugged and commented, “I thought we did a decent job. I don’t think they got a whole lot of great looks either. You make a mistake with them and it’s three points.”
The Hornets could not relax after Boulter’s three because Mass kept bringing the Tigers back into the game. The senior guard scored 10 of his game-high 16 points in the final quarter. His finish in the lane for a three-point play and straightaway pull-up three-pointer pulled Taunton to 45-41.
“He makes things happen with his hustle and when you hustle, you can capitalize on opportunities and he was right there to do it,” remarked Dacey. “He’s been playing well of late.”
After a Hornets turnover, Gerald Cortijo missed the front end of a one-and-one and time ran out on the Tigers comeback.
Vaughan commented after the game that he hoped not to see the Tigers in the Division 1-South tournament.
He continued, “They match up well with us and they have unique personnel that they can match up with us and they’re physical. They rebounds the ball well, they’re well-coached, they do a lot of good things so we’re happy to get out of here at home and get the league wrapped up.”