It’s no surprise that a battle between two of the best teams in the state went down to the buzzer.
Down by 3 points with less than a minute left in the fourth quarter at TD Garden, Central Catholic’s Tyler Nelson (15 points) drained a 3-pointer to tie the score, 50-50. But every time the Raiders thought they had the momentum, Mansfield one-upped them.
On the next possession, Kevin Conner (14 points) put his team back ahead by 2 and Central Catholic couldn’t recover as Mansfield won the Division 1 EMass championship, 55-50.
Mansfield will play Springfield Putnam in the state title game on Saturday at the DCU Center in Worcester.
“Talk about a resilient group that finds a way to get stop after stop and keep this game in the 50s,’’ said Mansfield coach Mike Vaughn. “We knew we could score in the 50s as well, so it was just a matter of making some plays at the end, and we did.”
After a tight first quarter which ended in Mansfield’s favor, 12-11, the Hornets held Central Catholic to 6 points in the second quarter to take a 24-17 lead into the half. Mansfield ended the half on a 7-0 run.
Central Catholic picked it up in the second half as Joel Berroa scored 12 of his 16 points.
Mansfield was clinging to a slim lead to start the fourth, but Nelson exploded for 7 consecutive points to tie the score at 41. Sophomore Michael Boen (7 points) secured Mansfield’s win with a pair of free throws.
“It was so well-coached and so disciplined offensively,” said Central Catholic coach Rich Nault. “Can’t put yourself in a hole, and it seemed like every time we made a run, especially late to tie it up, they responded with a huge play. We couldn’t get that one stop to get us over the hump.”
Mansfield typically thrives on 3-pointers, but Central Catholic held the Hornets to three, all in the first half. Mansfield used Conner and Rocky DeAndrade (8 points) to get tough baskets in the paint.
Mansfield’s Brendan Hill, the Hockomock League MVP, had 5 points, but he made crucial plays, such as blocking Nelson in the fourth and assisting Boen with a rebound with just seconds left in the game.
“That was our goal — to get here and play for a state championship,” Vaughn said. “Very few players and coaches get an opportunity at this, so we’ll enjoy it tonight and try to finish this thing off against an extremely talented, aggressive Putnam team come Saturday.”