WORCESTER, Mass. –- In their first year participating in the Central Mass. Division 1 tournament after years of playing in Division 1 South, the Franklin Panthers (18-6) are returning to a district final for the first time in eight years. They'll play for the Division 1 Central championship after knocking off Inter-High power Worcester South (12-10) on Sunday night, 59-50.
Franklin senior Chris Rodgers scored nearly half of his team’s points, finishing with 29 in all. An outstanding free throw shooter, Rodgers went 12-for-14 from the charity stripe.
“You win a couple games, you play some really good teams, and it gets tough," Franklin coach Dean O'Connor said. "You have to have one special guy who can carry you through the tough games, I think we have that this year. I think we’re more balanced than we were this time last year, Chris is the main [scorer] obviously but we’ve got a good inside-outside."
The Colonels had three players in double-figures -- seniors Kasheen Cunningham and Nate Mensah (6 rebounds), as well as junior forward John Maday (7 rebounds).
South was able to keep the deficit manageable by halftime, trailing 33-24 to the Panthers midway through. After appearing nervous and timid offensively in the first half, Mensah and Maday led South out of the break and got the lead down to two points after three quarters. Ultimately though, the Colonels’ early-game turnovers proved to be costly.
“I just thought we did a lot of standing around tonight instead of playing, it was what it was," South coach Pat Williams said. "I thought our offense was kind of stale, then we kind of got hot in the fourth quarter, but you can’t keep digging yourselves holes and trying to get out of it just doesn’t work after awhile.
"I’m very proud of them, we were a complete mess and we started to get hot early in the year, we won the holiday tournament and went on a seven game winning streak. Then there was a stretch where we played all the top teams in Central Mass.”
Slowing down Cunningham: A main point of emphasis for Franklin coming into the game was figuring out how to slow down Cunningham, South’s leading scorer at just over 17 points per game. A quick point guard with a lethal outside shot, Cunningham emerged this season as one of the most dangerous scorers in Central Mass.
“You look at the box scores, we’d seen them a couple times and we knew he was the guy who makes it happens for them,” O’Connor said of Cunningham. “Quenten Harrell is the guy...We throw him at the other team’s best player. But a lot of emphasis, we couldn’t let him go off. He was still able to create, he got in the paint and made some dishes to guys to make some easy baskets.”
Harrell (12 points), the Panthers’ starting point guard and go-to defensive stopper, picked up on some of Cunningham’s tendencies early on in the game.
“We know that he didn’t want to go to left. He has that left to right crossover, I saw that a couple times and tried to jump it," Harrell said. "I just wanted to make him work for everything, I saw he was playing the whole game just like I was -– so one of us was going to get tired."
Cunningham scored seven points in the first half, but managed just one basket from then on out – a putback shot with a minute left in the game.
“That’s remarkable,” Rodgers said of Harrell’s defensive effort. “Q always covers the best player on the other team, no matter how big or how quick. [Cunningham] is a great player. Overall I think we did pretty well, he split the D a couple times and made us look pretty bad, but overall we did pretty well.”