"It's really cool to be going to two sectional finals with these kids," Leighton said. "I'm just so tremendously proud of them, so happy for them."

WORCESTER — Franklin girls basketball coach John Leighton told a story of when his three senior captains were just freshmen.

"We started 0-6," he said. "I had never started 0-6. That's the only year that we didn't make the tournament.

"I brought those girls to the sectional final that year, Wachusett played Westford Academy," Leighton recalled. "We sat in the stands and the girls were like, 'Have you guys ever been here before?' and we've been to South sectionals, but for them, it was a brand new experience, they didn't know that they could get there."

Fast-forward back to Tuesday night, after a 59-42 victory over No. 4 Holy Name at WPI, the top-seeded Panthers are going to their second straight sectional final.

Franklin will play No. 3 Natick on Friday (8 p.m.) at Worcester State University.

"It's really cool to be going to two sectional finals with these kids," Leighton said. "I'm just so tremendously proud of them, so happy for them."

Coming into Tuesday night's Division 1 Central semifinal, the Napoleons (15-7) were the only team to play Franklin (22-0) to single-digits.

The Panthers had beaten the Naps by a combined 13 points in their two regular season meetings, defeating Holy Name by four and nine points.

"They are a good, well-coached team," Leighton said. "Their two guards are incredible and tonight they had other kids knocking down shots.

"They are just well-disciplined," he added. "That's a sign of good coaching. They are well-disciplined, didn't get rattled and we made shots here at the end."

The Naps got off to a hot start leading 12-6 after one quarter and entered the halftime up 22-21.

"We respect the hell out of them," said Franklin senior Ali Brigham, who scored a game-high 20 points. "They come back in the third game, they lost the first two times but in the third game they gave us just as much of a game.

"It teaches us to not just come into a game knowing that we are going to win," Brigham added. "Especially when we were down in the first quarter, it showed us that we can't just show up and win so it taught us to work hard."

Holy Name held the George Washington-bound senior scoreless in the first quarter, but just like her teammates, Brigham caught fire and came out strong the rest of the way.

"That was my fault, I couldn't make my layups," said Brigham of her first quarter struggles. "Our pregame talk was to win each quarter, so after we lost the first quarter, it's time to come back for the next three and then we won them."

After losing the first quarter, the Panthers won the second quarter 15-10, the third quarter 21-7 and the fourth quarter 17-13.

Holy Name came out with strong interior defense in the first quarter, making things difficult for Franklin and Brigham offensively.

"I think it was a combination of both," said Leighton when asked whether the Naps defense contributed to the Panthers' first quarter troubles. "When you try to pound a square peg into a round hole, things don't go well. There were 10 sets of feet in the paint for a good part of the first quarter and we were just trying to hammer it in instead of moving the ball around and stretching (the defense).

"I don't think we reversed enough early on," Leighton added. "We did in the second half and those reversals makes that backside kid who is hanging out guarding Ali go close out, and that creates a lot more room. I thought we executed better. But they played really well."

The third quarter is when things broke open for Franklin.

Brigham began the frame with a bucket and-1 to give the Panthers a 24-22 lead that they would not relinquish. Franklin would give themselves some breathing room with an 11-2 run to finish the quarter giving them a 42-29 lead heading into the final quarter that was capped by an Erin Quaile (10 points) jumper that beat the buzzer.

END 3rd:@fhsgvbasketball 42, Holy Name 29. Erin squalid hits this jumper before the buzzer.@MetroWestSports@FHSSportspic.twitter.com/SnCU41yG84

— Ethan Winter (@EWints)March 4, 2020

Now Franklin hopes to make it back-to-back sectional championships.

"It feels pretty good," said Brigham on returning to the sectional final for a second consecutive year. "We want to bring home another trophy. We are excited for Friday with the boys game starting before us. So we are looking for a good crowd. We are excited about it."

While they won't get a rematch of last year's sectional final against Wachusett, they get a Natick team who knocked out the Panthers in the sectional quarterfinals in 2018.

"We played them my sophomore year in the playoffs and they beat us," Brigham said. "So we are coming back hungry so we can win."

Ethan Winter is a senior multimedia sports journalist at the Daily News. He can be reached at 508-626-3987 or ewinter@wickedlocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @EWints. Sign up for the Sports Headlines Newsletter, which is sent to your email every morning by clicking here for the MetroWest Daily News and here for the Milford Daily News.