Div. 1 Boys: Madison Park 63, Franklin 60

BOSTON -- The play was ironically labeled “victory,” and Franklin ran it almost perfectly against Madison Park on the final possession of the MIAA boys’ South sectional basketball Tuesday night at UMass-Boston's Clark Athletic Center.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, everything worked except the shot, allowing Madison Park to escape with a thrilling 63-60 win.

The final play was one the Panthers practiced many times during the course of the season, never actually knowing whether they would need to use it.

Brendan Skidmore, a senior who had already drilled three long bombs, ran his Madison Park defender off a screen at one end of the floor while the clock stood stuck at 1.3 seconds. Russ Haddad cradled the ball at the other, ready to throw an inbounds pass the entire length of the court once Skidmore scampered free.

Franklin trailed 63-60, had trailed almost the entire game, had come storming back like an angry girlfriend looking for the final word in a heated argument, and Skidmore’s desperation turnaround was the Panthers’ final chance at overtime.

The sharp-shooter gained a sliver of separation, caught Haddad’s pass, turned toward the basket from 30 feet away and let loose a prayer.

“I didn’t even get a glimpse of the hoop. I just caught it and threw it up there,” he said.

“I thought it was in. I thought we were going to have to go for another five minutes,” Madison Park center Dakim Murray explained.

“Heart pumping, stroke city, and I’m looking, and I said, ‘No, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Madison Park coach Dennis Wilson added.

But the last ditch attempt fell inches short, bounding off the front rim. And so Madison Park narrowly advanced to the South sectional finals.

The game never seemed destined for such a critical moment. But that was before Franklin clawed its way back from a 21-point deficit. Before the Panthers discovered a way to keep Madison Park’s bruising big men, Dakim Murray and David Stewart, from dominating the paint. Before Skidmore hit a clutch three with 2.0 seconds left to bring Franklin within 62-60, and before Stewart was fouled on the ensuing inbounds pass and hit one of two free throws, setting the stage for the dramatic finish.

“When we were up 20, I thought we were just going to cruise through. But nothing’s easy in states, as you can see,” said Murray, who finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds.

After ending the first quarter with a 14-11 lead, Madison Park owned the second quarter and took a 35-19 lead into intermission.

The 6-foot-4 Murray and his partner in interior domination, the 6-foot-3 Stewart (25 points, 10 rebounds), were critical to Madison Park’s fast start. The bruisers combined for 48 points and 21 rebounds, setting a physical tone from the tip off.

Franklin played mostly 2-3 zone defense in the first half, expecting that the strategy would force Madison Park into shooting outside jumpers. The Panthers were attempting to hide their clear size disadvantage, but it wouldn’t be that easy. The Cardinals exhibited poise while moving the ball inside to their work horses, foregoing outside jumpers in favor of higher-percentage looks.

“We practiced a lot against 2-3 defense and zone because we knew they weren’t too big and they’d have to go zone," Murray said. "If they were going to man us, me and my twin tower, D-Stew, would have just killed them –- killed them –- inside. But somehow, God willing, we still killed them."

“I probably stayed in [the zone defense] too long,” said Franklin coach Dean O’Connor. “We’re a man team. In the second half we started cranking up the pressure and getting them away from the basket more. Zone, I figured they’d get more outside shots, but we’re undersized in there and we just couldn’t box their guys out.

“That was the story of the game, the offensive rebounds and the putbacks. Dakim killed us in there, and Stewart. We’re undersized. We’re playing a power forward that’s 6-foot-1, 165 pounds against those guys, so...”

The effects were slow to kick in when Franklin switched out of the zone defense following halftime. Madison Park continued to feed their two pillars down low, building a 44-23 with four minutes left in the third quarter.

But Franklin’s hard man-to-man pressure began to take its toll. The Panthers slowly chipped away, then seized momentum fully while closing the third quarter with a 7-0 run.

Jason McKie ended the quarter by drawing two consecutive charging violations.

“Jason had like four or five charges the whole game," said Sam Bohmiller, who paced Franklin with 19 points and five assists. "He’s been doing that all year. That’s what he does. He’s huge for us. Taking charges is a huge momentum swing."

By the time three minutes passed off the clock in the fourth quarter, Franklin had already used its fierce full-court press and suddenly-falling jump shots to pull within 50-48.

Madison Park answered with four straight points to make it 54-48, but after digging out of its own grave, Franklin wasn’t prepared to die again. The Panthers quickly clawed back to within two at 56-54, and had a chance to tie or take the lead with two minutes left. But a lefty scoop shot by Joe Palazini (15 points) missed its mark and Madison Park maintained its slim margin.

With all the quit of a 92-year old working the same construction job for 70 years, Franklin continued to knock relentlessly on the door of a glorious comeback. Skidmore drilled a triple from the corner with 46.9 seconds left to bring the Panthers within one, 58-57, the closest the score had been since the first quarter.

But again, Madison Park’s offensive rebounding emerged as a factor. The Cardinals rebounded their own misses on two consecutive sets of free throws, ultimately being fouled three different times on the same possession while pushing the lead to 61-57.

Franklin missed a three on the ensuing possession, Matthews hit one out of two free throws, and the comeback finally seemed to have lost all its air.

But Skidmore drilled a triple from the corner with 2.0 seconds left, making the score 62-60, Stewart split a pair of charity shots (63-60), and O’Connor used the ensuing timeout to call the team’s “victory” play.

Everything worked except the shot.

“They’re disappointed, but I think even inside that once the hurt goes away -– by the time we get on that bus -– they’re going to be proud of the way they fought. How can’t you be?” said O’Connor.

Brockton up next: With the win, Madison Park advances to meet Brockton in the South Division 1 finals on Saturday at UMass Boston.

“Brockton’s real tough -– real tough. But it’s go hard or go home. I’m a senior. I have to make it to the Garden,” said Murray, referring to the TD Garden, annual site of the state's Eastern Mass. Finals.

A season to be proud of: During his 13 years coaching basketball at Franklin, O’Connor never had a team quite like this year’s.

“I couldn’t be prouder of this team. We lost our first three games, then we won 19 out of our last 20, with a team that had three guys that played at all last year,” said O’Connor. “Nobody thought we were going to be anything this year. These seniors came together and they played with a lot of heart, chemistry. We’ve got some skill too, but that was the key. This is the best –- the team that gets it the most of any team I’ve ever coached.”

O'Connor's star point guard, Bohmiller, still felt the pain of defeat afterward, but admitted that his team surpassed expectations.

“Coming into the season, no one thought we’d make the South semifinals. So we just proved those people wrong. It was a hell of a season, and I’m going to miss it,” he said.