Eastside seeking special finish to season


Eastside coach Pop Williams gets in the ear of Thomas Lundy during the Class 5A, Region 2 final last week.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 5:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 5:58 p.m.

LAKELAND — He has taken Eastside to the state tournament three other times, winning the Class 5A title in 2006, so coach Pop Williams knows how special it feels to reach Lakeland, especially for his more experienced players.

Facts

Today's Class 5A semifinals

The Lakeland Center
Plantation American Heritage (23-7) vs. Panama City Rutherford (26-2), 10 a.m.

Eastside (24-6) vs. St. Petersburg Lakewood (19-11), 11:30 a.m.

Eight years after winning it all, the Rams have been close since, but fell short of reaching their ultimate destination in the state playoffs.

Now that they have, winning it all, achieving the goal of goals, would make the season complete.

Eastside (24-6), winners of 12 straight, faces St. Petersburg Lakewood (19-11), a team that played in the Rams' Dante Anderson Memorial Invitational in January, Friday morning at 11:30 in the second 5A state semifinal.

The first semifinal, pitting Plantation American Heritage (23-7) against Panama City Rutherford (26-2), tips off at 10 a.m.

Ironically, the last time the Rams faced the Spartans was during Eastside's championship season in 2006, winning 45-35. Not that any Ram will ever forget that team, which had a budding star in sophomore Dante Anderson. Eastside is looking to rekindle that pride in achieving the ultimate prize.

Today's opponent, Lakewood, is in its first state final four since 2008 and is looking for its third state title, first in 5A.

“They are very athletic and very talented,” Williams said. “The coach's son (Anthony Lawrence Jr.) is a big kid (6-foot-7) that can shoot. Gainesville did a great job playing against them when they played up here, even though they lost by 19 (79-60). They have played some good competition. Hopefully, our kids will be ready to play.”

Eastside comes into this game very balanced offensively, with seniors Seth Brown and Barry Johnson, and juniors Darius Norman, Thomas Lundy and Marquez Ross. Freshman Joseph McCray has also been an effective scorer.

In last week's regional final win over Brooksville Nature Coast (48-43), Norman provided offense in the first half and Lundy took over in the second half. Williams credits Norman with also playing superb defense.

“I think a lot of people overlook Darius,” Williams said. “He had to play his offensive role, that is a big challenge to contribute and to play hard on defense. Thomas played good, but Darius did a really good job defensively and offensively.”

Williams said Brown tweaked his knee against Citrus in the regional semifinals and didn't practice for a few days before Nature Coast.

“His timing was off, you could tell,” Williams said. “He is much better now.”

Lakewood coach Anthony Lawrence Sr., in his third year, is also looking to bring pride back to the Spartan program, which for 35 years was coached by Daniel Wright.

“It is exciting,” Lawrence Sr. said. “This has been a very successful program. To follow coach Wright, who did such a great job for 35 years, it is exciting around here. I had opportunity to work under coach Wright and played for him. It means a lot to the school and the community for us to be at state.”

Whoever wins will be playing the 5A state final at 10:05 a.m. on Saturday. Neither American Heritage or Rutherford have won a state title in boys basketball, although American Heritage played in the state final last year, losing by 21 to Tampa Jesuit.

“We started off this season pretty slow, we played the hardest schedule in the state,” Lawrence said. “We focused more on us throughout the playoffs. You have to focus on what you do best.”

“I feel good to be going back,” Williams said. “I am so excited for the kids, to even experience the final four. Sometimes I think Eastside is not taken seriously. I know there were a lot of people there to see us lose to Nature Coast on Saturday. We will be ready.”

Contact Larry Savage at 352-374-5050 or larry.savage@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/sunpreps

Boys Class 5A state semifinal preview

Who: Eastside (24-6) vs. St. Petersburg Lakewood (19-11)

What: FHSAA Class 5A boys basketball state semifinal

Where: The Lakeland Center

When: Today, 11:30 a.m.

Online broadcast: www.bhsnlive.com ($6.95 for one-day pass, may include tax)

Admission: $10 per session; parking $8 per day

How they got here: Eastside def. Brooksville Nature Coast 48-43 in the regional finals, def. Citrus 75-72 in the regional semifinals, def. Dunnellon 69-57 in the regional quarterfinals; Lakewood def. Cape Coral Mariner 64-53 in the regional finals, def. St. Petersburg Gibbs 63-60 in the regional semifinals, def. Tampa Robinson 85-59 in the regional quarterfinals.

What's next: Eastside or Lakewood face the winner of American Heritage-Panama City Rutherford in Saturday's state final at 10:05 a.m.

Players to watch: Eastside - Barry Johnson, 6-4, Sr., F (10.9 ppg., 7.4 rpg.); Darius Norman, 6-1, Jr., W (9.1 ppg., 5.4 rpg.); Thomas Lundy, 6-2, Jr., G (7.8 ppg., 3.7 rpg., 3.5 apg.); Seth Brown, 6-5, Sr., C (7.8 ppg., 6.7 rpg.); Marquez Ross, 5-10, Jr., G (7.5 ppg.); Joseph McCray, 6-3, Fr., SG (7.2 ppg., 3.4 rpg.); Lakewood - Jacobi Boykins, 6-5, Sr., F (21.5 ppg., 6.0 rpg.); Anthony Lawrence, 6-7, Jr., G (19.0 ppg., 10.0 rpg., 8.0 apg.); Mike Clark, 6-8, Sr., F/C (10.2 ppg., 7.0 rpg); Joqui Ellison, 6-0, Sr., G (10.0 ppg., 4.0 apg.); Jimmy Robinson, 6-2, Sr., F (10.0 ppg., 6.0 rpg.).

Free throw: This is Eastside's first trip to state since winning the 5A state title in 2006, led by an outstanding sophomore in Dante Anderson. Tragically, Anderson, considered the state's top basketball prospect, was killed in an car accident a year later. The Rams enter today's state semifinal riding a 12-game winning streak, winning all three previous playoff games at home. Junior guard Thomas Lundy scored 13 of his team-high 17 points in the second half in Eastside's win over Nature Coast. Senior forward Barry Johnson is a standout defensive lineman, who signed with Bethune-Cookman. This is Lakewood's first final four since 2008, winning state 4A titles in 2004 and 2002. Leading scorer Jacobi Boykins, a senior who is heading to Louisiana Tech, recovered from a neck injury that kept him out all last season, the result of a car accident. Anthony Lawrence Jr., the coach's son, averages a double-double and decommitted from UCF in November. Mike Clark, a 6-8 senior forward/center who transferred from Boca Ciega, signed with St. Francis University (Pa.).

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