Thursday night in Waynesville, Franklin boys basketball stymied Tuscola, and did what no Mountaineers opponent had done thus far, shutting down star player Nate Brafford. For three quarters, anyway.
Aided by 33 points from Brafford in the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers wiped out a 13-point deficit in an 83-76 win.
Brafford scored 38 points for the game, the majority of which came in his final-quarter explosion, after putting up 50 Tuesday. Trent Turner (20) and Coleman Bryson (13) joined him in double figures. The Mounties, after also coming back from down 14 at West Henderson Tuesday night, are rapidly earning the “comeback kids” moniker.
“It took me awhile to find my flow,” Brafford said. “The first three quarters I didn’t do very well, I was getting pressured most of the time. In the fourth quarter, I just found ways to break free. I think the pressure helped us get some turnovers and get some momentum going our way.”
Trailing by 13 entering the fourth quarter, Tuscola outscored the Panthers 39-19 to come away with the win, using a 17-4 run in the first two and a half minutes to tie it and a 28-8 run to take a seven-point lead.
“We got them tired,” said head coach Nathan Messer said. “They were doing a box-and-one on Nate. The poor kid that was guarding him had to run everywhere and that helped our legs be fresh at the end. That helped Nate be able to get open and cut better. We were able to get the ball to him early and got him a couple good looks first, and it got him hot, got him going. The kids feed off that. From there, we just started playing some great defense, making them rush a little more than they wanted to. We got the defensive rebounds, and we just came down and played good offense.”
It took the Mountaineers less than a minute to shrink their deficit to seven points, thanks to back-to-back Panthers turnovers and a technical foul against Franklin.
After the Panthers pushed their lead back to nine, Brafford drilled a 3 to bring Tuscola within six at 61-55 with 6:32 to play. Franklin then turned it over on the ensuing in-bounds pass, and Brafford brought the Mounties within four with a one-handed shot from a tough angle.
Next to Brafford’s white-hot shooting, the Mountaineers’ pressure defense played a huge role in the comeback.
“We worked on that after our last time we played them at Franklin,” Messer said. “We really worked on that hard, making sure we could get that trap really quick. And it worked great. We took the reversal pass away, and it startled them for a second and they turned the ball over. That’s what we were trying to get them to do.”
It seemed the Mountaineers and their star had found a groove at this point, as Brafford sank another triple to make it just a one-point game. Coleman Bryson then hit a free-throw to tie the game at 61.
Franklin answered back with the next four points to reclaim a 65-61 lead, but a three-point play by Brafford brought the Mountaineers back within one. The Panthers turned it over off the in-bounds pass again, and Brafford buried another long-range shot from the corner to put Tuscola up 67-65 with about four minutes to play.
“They switched into that zone, that 2-1-2 look, so that helped me get into some more open shots and get my shot off a little better,” Brafford said. “The whole first three quarters, they were all up on me, I could hardly cut. They also started calling a few more fouls on them too, so that went our way.”
The Brafford show continued, as after Trent Turner hit two free throws to put Tuscola up by four, Franklin again immediately coughed it up, and the junior star buried another shot from the same corner to put his team up 72-65 with three minutes and change left to cap off a 28-8 run.
“Coming into this year, that was the one thing we talked about,” Messer said. “Nate is going to have to average about 30 points a game. We didn’t know if he could do that. But his work ethic and his basketball IQ allows him to get that. But what else helps him is his teammates love watching him do it. They play just as hard for him. We have one kid that wanted to set screens for him all night. It was great. It was his call. That was great. That’s the one thing I’ve noticed with this team is they’re making adjustments on the court without us having to do anything. That is, to me, a team that’s growing up.”
The two teams alternated buckets over the next couple minutes, leaving Tuscola still with a seven-point lead with two minutes left. Franklin got it back within six with 1:24 to play, but it didn’t get closer than that, as Tuscola salted away a second-straight comeback win.
Franklin came out firing to start the game, taking a 24-12 lead after one quarter of play,
11-point lead at the half and 13-point lead through three quarters. The Mounties trailed by as many as 16 points in the first quarter.
“It’s giving me a lot of gray hair,” Messer said. “For whatever reason, we play better in the second half. We’re going to figure out what that is, hopefully but two halves together eventually and not have to come from behind every time.”
The Mountaineers will host T.C. Roberson Friday night