By Matt Noonan
BOSTON, MA – At times it seemed possible that Mansfield High School was going to upset St. John’s Prep, but with the game on the line and the Hornets without their star player, senior forward Jeff Hill during the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, the Pioneers sank their free-throw shots and punched their ticket to the MIAA Division I state finals in Worcester on Saturday, as St. John’s Prep prevailed, 64-55.
“I think we did a pretty good job defensively against them,” said St. John’s Prep head coach Sean Connolly. “They have a kid [Michael] Lofton who is very good. Creates a lot of mismatches [and] once he gets to the paint it’s tough because he’s such a good passer, but overall, I thought we did a good job defensively.”
Defense seemed to be the key ingredient for the Pioneers success on Tuesday, as St. John’s Prep held the Hornets to just seven points during the first quarter, which came on behalf of Hill, who knocked down three baskets and went [1-3] at the line during the opening eight minutes.
Yet, the Hornets fought back during the second quarter, when Hill led the team on a 7-2 run to end the first half. Not only did Mansfield rely on Hill during the first half, but also, senior forward Joseph Gracia who knocked down a clutch three pointer during the closing seconds, as well as junior guard Brian Hershman scored on a layup after his team forced a Pioneers turnover.
While the Hornets appeared rejuvenated from forcing turnovers and scoring on the transition, Mansfield head coach Michael Vaughn seemed determined that his defense would help his struggling offense score points and win the game.
“I thought our defense did exactly what we had to to win the game,” said Vaughn.
Entering the second half, St. John’s Prep scored first and eventually took advantage of Mansfield’s missed shots, as the Pioneers extended their lead to 41-29, but being resilient, the Hornets stormed back again. The Hornets may have indeed struggled to convert jump shots or long rang three-pointers, so they utilized their taller players, such as Jeff Hill and senior forward Michael Lofton to score points in the paint.
“We haven’t shot well against teams that are good defensively,” said Vaughn. “We kind of find ways to muster points and score in spurts and coming in the shots weren’t falling, we had some early looks and all of a sudden we stopped shooting them and every shot you don’t take is like a miss as well because it just makes the defense that much more beneficial.”
Once the fourth quarter began, the Hornets continued to stop the Pioneers and draw closer to their lead, but once Hill committed his fifth foul of the game, it seemed as if Mansfield wasn’t going to be headed to the state title game in Worcester.
“I can’t say enough about what Hill brought to the table,” said Vaughn. “When we struggled offensively you could kind of see our offensive moral being down and Jeff just motored. He gave us everything he possibly had to a point.”
“I think it made it a little bit easier for us having him out, probably the best defender,” said Connolly.
With Hill done for the game and Mansfield’s title hopes slipping a way, the Hornets would pull within three points, but that would be as close as they could get, as Vaughn ordered his team to foul their opponents and send St. John’s Prep’s best player to the line, senior guard Pat Connaughton, who knocked down three free-throws during the final minutes. He also electrified the crowd during an open court steal, which prompted him to show off his vertical jump and dunk the ball too, which clearly electrified the crowd.
“Coach said, I had to get a dunk at the Garden, I played here three games and hadn’t one yet,” said a smiling Connaughton.
St. John’s Prep finished the game with critical free-throws and will return to school in preparation for their biggest game of the season, the state title, which will be occur on Saturday the DCU Center in Worcester.