So close, yet so far. Lakeland’s just 30 miles to the east along I-4, yet that distance might-as-well-be in the middle of Siberia if the teams from our area can’t get the job done this weekend. For those squads that do handle their business, the trip won’t be over and there will be unfinished business, but it certainly beats not having a season at all left to finish said business, right? There are eight chances for teams left from the BCP area. From Pasco County, it’s Academy at the Lakes’ turn to carry the flag. Three teams from Pinellas County (Gibbs, St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs) and four teams from Hillsborough (Berkeley Prep, East Bay, Jefferson,and Tampa Prep) will be in action this Friday and Saturday night. Here’s the breakdown as we see it for the large classes.
SATURDAY, 2/21 – 7:00pm
CLASS 5A REGION-II FINALS
Gainesville-Eastside (14-12) at #3-Tarpon Springs (29-1) – The Spongers are on cruise-control at the moment with their only blemish coming from a 2-pt loss to state-ranked Chaminade-Madonna program out of Hollywood on a neutral court in the Kreul Classic all the way back before Christmas. Eastside is arguably the biggest Cinderella in the state and the biggest in Class 5A having upset Dunnellon and defeating Lake Weir; both of which are 20+ win teams. Tarpon hasn’t really been challenged in quite a long time, and on the surface shouldn’t be challenged on Saturday either, but of course that’s why they lace ’em up. With four players averaging in double-figures for Tarpon Springs plus great size in both courts (something neither Dunnellon, nor Lake Weir, nor Eastside for that matter posses), it would take a Herculean effort from the Rams starters in order to prevent Pinellas County from having one out of its possible three teams make it to Lakeland next week. Winner of this game advances to play the winner of Tallahassee-Rickards and Baker County in the final four.
CLASS 5A REGION-III FINALS
#4-Gibbs (20-8) at Naples-Golden Gate (22-7) – Something that bodes well for the Gladiators is that both Tampa Catholic and Berkeley Prep have beaten GGHS this season. Another thing in Gibbs’ favor is that they have played arguably one of the toughest schedules around the area and faired pretty well against that competition (even in losses) against Cincinnati-LaSalle at the Kingdom of the Sun in Ocala or against Montverde Academy at the Wally Keller Classic in Punta Gorda. That kind of schedule certainly helps, but it also helps to have one of the most-natural scorers in the entire state in Barry Brown. The equation is simple for Gibbs, get the ball to #5. Sajon Ford’s length in the middle and on the boards should help, but he will have to contribute offensively as well or become a nightmare in the post defensively. Golden Gate’s nucleus of PG Peghuentz Pericles (11ppg), PF Arcaim Lallemand (14ppg), and wingman Jeffercy Jean (15ppg) are a handful and Lallemand’s size (6-5,215lbs) will give Gibbs some fits along with Jean who is “only” 6-6, 170-pounds, but plays bigger than that. Gibbs cannot afford to be stagnate on offense when Brown has the ball and be ready for the pass when the defense collapses on the penetration. If the Gladiators bigs’ avoid early foul-trouble and stop the Titans’ transition, Pinellas County gets their second representative to the party in Lakeland for the Class 5A semifinals and finals next week. If Gibbs wins, they will face the winner of #1-ranked Cardinal Gibbons or Eustis.
CLASS 6A REGION-III FINALS
#8-Lehigh (26-1) at Jefferson (26-4) – Talk about a magical season for the Dragons. The boys from Carver City look to keep this season alive against a young-and-aggressive team from the Naples-area. The Lightning are coached by Dawn McNew and were at this point in the playoffs last season until they were knocked out by Lennard. Lehigh’s 5-star freshman Center Emmitt Williams’ size (6-5,200lbs) is disruptive to PG’s trying to penetrate and his ability to move well in transition and extend the defense from the paint is an issue, but Jefferson’s size advantage in the backcourt is substantial with their core of Taj Jenkins, Cameron Padgett and Maurice Moore as well as a roster that is full of upperclassman contributors. That size advantage the Dragons do have comes with a warning label however. There’s a reason why Lehigh’s mascot is appropriately named the “Lightning” due to the fact they can get white-hot from the perimeter then decide to pound inside with Williams if they can jump to a quick lead. Jefferson doesn’t want to make a habit of playing from behind at this point in the season so close to being in the Class 6A Final Four. If the Dragons advance to Lakeland, they will face the winner of Pembroke Pines Charter vs. Norland.
CLASS 7A REGION-II FINALS
#5-Osceola (21-4) at East Bay (23-6) – It’s the Kowboys versus the Indians for the right to play in the Class 7A Final Four in Lakeland next week. Osceola doesn’t have a single player over 6′-4″ on their roster, but don’t let that fool you for a second. Teams with guards that can run you up and down the floor and press will cause chaos if you’re not properly prepared for it a la playing squads like Lake Minneola. They always say that styles make fights. The good news for local hoops fans is that if there’s a team equipped to counterpunch Osceola, it’s East Bay and their brand of transition offense created from high court pressure led by Jon Jean. Choosing a victor in this matchup comes down to a coin flip and when that situation usually arises it comes down to offensive execution, stubborn defense and most importantly; protecting the home floor. Winner of this game goes on to face either Crestview or Oviedo in the semifinals.
CLASS 8A REGION-II FINALS
#7-Oak Ridge (22-7) at St. Petersburg (15-7) – The door to the Class 8A Final Four was blown wide open in the first round with #1-Evans bowing out to Dr. Phillips. Oak Ridge took out another potential contender in Winter Park in the regional semis, and with the state’s #2 ranked player (only behind the nation’s #1 player Ben Simmons) in PG Antonio Blakeney manning the back court, it looks like curtains for the Green Devils season, right? Wrong. Second-guess and doubt St. Pete till the cows come home; and do it on someone else’s time because this is a team not to be taken lightly. They took Evans to OT in the Kingdom of the Sun Tournament and although they were defeated, they went on to win the Consolation Championship in Ocala. Freshman PG Serrel Smith is going to be in Blakeney’s position in the rankings when he’s a senior, but for now he’s got some underclassman help in the form Darius Banks, Pro Wells, and Travis Bianco. Oak Ridge’s size in the front-court isn’t exactly the stuff giants are made of, but their “big” guy Alex Owens (6-8, 240lbs) can and will be a problem if Oak Ridge is able to get into their half-court with their 3-guard system that can put some physicality into the mix. If St. Petersburg can turn this game into a track meet and hit from the perimeter, you could see the Green Devils this time next week in Lakeland. Winner of this game faces either Boone or Hagerty.
– Doug Pugh