Rams boys make it to state Final Four


Eastside’s Marquez Ross (23) gestures after hitting a deep three during the Class 5A Region 2 finals game against Nature Coast.

BRAD MCCLENNY/Special oto the Guardian
Published: Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 3:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 3:30 p.m.

The Eastside High School boys basketball team will be making its fifth trip to the Final Four of the Florida High School Athletic Association state championship tournament with coach Pop Williams at the helm of the program.

Facts

FINAL FOUR GAME

* What: Eastside High School vs. St. Petersburg Lakewood High School in the Class 5A state semifinal.
When: 11:30 a.m. Friday.
Where: Lakeland Civic Center, 701 W. Lime St., Lakeland.
Cost: $7.
Miscellaneous: The winner will play at 10:05 a.m. Saturday for the championship.
Information: Call 836-834-8100.

The Rams (24-6) earned a spot in the Final Four with a 48-43 victory over Brooksville Nature Coast Technical High School (24-8) at home Saturday night in the state Regional 2 championship game. The win for the Rams avenged a loss to the Sharks in a regional final in 2012. That game also was played at Eastside.

The Rams will play St. Petersburg Lakewood High School (19-11) at 11:30 a.m. Friday at the Lakeland Civic Center in Lakeland. If the Rams beat Lakewood, they will advance to the Class 5A championship game at 10:05 a.m. Saturday against the winner of the other Class 5A state semifinal between Panama City Rutherford High School (26-3) and Plantation Heritage High School (23-7) of Broward County.

Lakewood will be led by 6-foot-5 shooting guard Jacoby Boykin, a Louisiana Tech University commit, and 6-foot-6 junior small forward Anthony Lawrence. According to FloridaHoops.com, Boykin is the 25th rated player in the 2014 class in the state and Lawrence is the 23rd rated player in the 2015 class in the state.

The Rams will be led by seniors Seth Brown, a 6-foot-5 forward, and Barry Johnson, a 6-foot-4 forward. They will be joined by juniors Thomas Lundy, a 6-foot-2 guard who is calm under pressure, deadly from the three-point range and good at driving to the hole from the top of the circle. There's also Mike Nobles, a 6-foot-7 forward who is a ferocious rebounder and defender. Nobles is tremendous at scoring off putbacks on the offensive end of the court. Then there is Darrius Norman, a 6-foot-1 shooting guard who can score from the perimeter, as well as slash to the basket via the paint and on the baseline, and also Marquez Ross, a 5-foot-10 point guard, who also is a sharp-shooter from the perimeter and a great defensive player.

Sophomore Khalil Banton, a 5-foot-6 point guard, gives Williams another ball-handling option at the guard position. Despite his sometimes erratic play, something Williams says will decrease tremendously with court maturity, Banton has been instrumental in the playoffs with timely points in crucial situations. Banton, like the late Dante Anderson who led the Rams to its only state championship in 2006 as a sophomore, has the ability to be a key factor in whether the Rams bring home their second state championship.

Williams will probably also play senior Miguel Hicks, a 6-foot swing man, and freshman Joseph McCray, a 6-foot-3 shooting guard who played valuable minutes for the Rams before a knee injury late in the season sidelined him so far in the playoffs.

In the game against Nature Coast, the Rams countered the Sharks' 3-2 zone defense with an outstanding shooting performance during the latter part of the first period, which lasted until halfway through the second period. The Rams turned a 7-5 lead into a 22-7 lead with less than five minutes left to play before halftime. The Sharks then went on a 12-2 run to make the score 24-19 at halftime.

The Rams didn't maintain its scoring from the perimeter, but the Sharks stayed close to them the remainder of the game, tying the game at 25 midway through the third period. The Sharks tied the game for the last time at 43 after a three-pointer by Carlos Clemente, a 6-foot-2 shooting guard.

Eastside then turned the ball over and Banton was called for a flagrant foul that sent the Sharks' Rohan Blackwood, a 6-foot-5 senior power forward, to the line with 2:05 left in the game. As the basketball gods shined on the Rams, Blackwood promptly missed the two free throws awarded to Nature Coast as a result of the flagrant foul and Nature Coast didn't score when they got the ball after the free throws by Blackwood.

Lundy, who led Eastside with 17 points, scoring 13 of them in the second half, then sank a three-pointer from the top of the key and Eastside sealed the victory with one free throw each by Ross and Lundy in one-in-one situations for the final margin of victory.

Williams said his team was focused on stopping Clemente on the offensive end and shooting Nature Coast out of their 2-3 zone.

"I told my players that we were going to have to shoot our way out of their zone," said Williams. "I told Seth and Barry that we were going to have to ride. I told them they were going to have to hit their shots, and they were going to have to take it to the basket and hit their free throws."

Brown and Johnson, who started as sophomores when the Rams played against the Sharks in 2012, said the victory was as sweet as honey on a honey comb.

"I have never seen where Lakeland is, but we are going to Lakeland now," Johnson said. "This is sweet revenge, and that is all I was thinking about – Revenge! Revenge! Revenge!"

Brown emphatically made it clear what the mission of the Eastside team will be when they travel to the state Final Four.

"We are going to state to make a statement," he said.

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