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By Michael Flanagan
Hometown Weekly Sports Editor
It’s been an incredible year for the Needham High School boys varsity basketball team in 2016-2017, finishing the regular season at 16-4 and earning the No. 3 seed in the MIAA South Sectional playoffs.
Following victories over Barnstable (68-58), Newton South (68-49), and an upset win at No. 2 seed BC High (69-66) in the semifinals, the Rockets took to the court at Taunton High School on Friday night to face off against No. 1-seeded Mansfield in the South Sectional Finals.
Without a doubt, the number one difference-maker for the Rockets this season has been the play of junior guard Thomas Shaughnessy, whose ability to put up video-game-like numbers seemingly every game has lifted the Rockets to immense success. On Friday, Shaughnessy put together another monster performance in the form of 27 points, four rebounds, and five assists, guiding the Rockets to a 65-56 victory over the top-seeded Hockomock League champion Hornets (23-3) for Needham’s first ever South Sectional title in boys basketball.
Shaughnessy caught fire right out of the gate on Friday, nailing three three-pointers in the first quarter, including one from half court at the buzzer to give the Rockets a 22-17 lead at the end of one. After Mansfield battled back with an 8-2 run to begin the second quarter to take a 25-24 lead, senior guard Connor Reidy drilled a three-pointer with about five minutes left in the half to give the Rockets back the lead at 27-25. However, the Hornets would regain the lead through power drives into the paint as the game entered halftime with Mansfield ahead by a point at 33-32.
The Rockets and Hornets continued to trade blows to begin the second half of play, with senior guard Matthew Shaker (20 points) hitting three of his six three-pointers on the night early in the third. A layup by Shaughnessy with 3:30 left to play in the third quarter gave Needham back the lead at 42-40. After Mansfield tied the game back up at 42, the Rockets went on a 7-2 run to close out the third, highlighted by a buzzer-beating layup by junior forward Michael Klemm (eight points, eight rebounds, three assists) to give Needham a 49-44 edge entering the final quarter of play.
The fourth quarter belonged to Matthew Shaker, as the senior drilled two straight three-pointers early in the period to help Needham to a 55-50 lead. After Mansfield cut the deficit to three at 55-52, Shaughnessy swished home another three-pointer with three minutes to play to extend the lead back to six at 58-52. Needham then stood tall defensively on each of Mansfield’s next three possessions, highlighted by a big block by Michael Klemm. After the Hornets cut the lead to four at 58-54, Shaughnessy extended the Needham lead back to six with a layup at 60-54 with 1:12 to play.
With Mansfield now being forced to play the foul game, the Rockets stepped up to the line and sank their free throws down the stretch to preserve their multiple possession lead. Following a pair of free-throws by Matthew Shaker with 12 seconds left, the Rockets hung on for the 65-56 victory, winning their first ever South Sectional championship in school history and advancing to the Division I Final Four.
At the time of print, the Rockets get set to take on the winner of the Northern Division in the state semifinals on Tuesday at TD Garden in Boston.