Notes from the state basketball tournament

Just came back from four days in downtown Lakeland watching the state high school boys basketball tournament. (Downtown Lakeland has sprawled all the way up to the orange groves where I used to live several miles north of town).

Watching high school basketball is one of my favorite activities, second only to watching any kind of baseball, so this was a great weekend.

Here are some observations.

Austin Rivers of Winter Park is the top recruit in the country. He has already signed with Duke. And when he plays, he doesn’t give you the impression that he’s doing anything spectacular, then you look up at the board and he has 20 or more points.

He has a great drive to the basket with an amazingly quick thrust that leaves defenders just looking at him.

Winter Park beat Dr. Phillips for the second straight year in the final game. Rivers looked like the best player in the state, and has earned whatever accolades come his way, including a four-year free ride to Duke.

As good as Winter Park is, another team laying claim to be the best team in the state is Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer, which won the state 5A championship over a pretty good Lake Wales squad, the hometown favorite in the tourney. Dwyer finished with a 32-1 record, ranked 10th in the nation … yes, the nation, not the state.

But it was that one loss that makes you wonder. Dwyer lost to Winter Park in a Christmas tournament in Fort Myers.

Class 4A was one I was interested in because of the presence of Palatka, where three of my children went to school. Cardinal Gibbons came in with a reputation of being a low-scoring team, but they scored 55 against Palatka and won by two points. The Panthers doomed themselves in the final 20 seconds with two possessions in which they failed to either get the ball to their big man or get a shot off.

The next day, Leesburg beat Gibbons soundly for the state title. Leesburg did what Palatka couldn’t do … hit three-pointers. Palatka was 3-for-21 in the game, Leesburg had three in the first quarter. At halftime Leesburg had more three-pointers than two-pointers, and there was little doubt as to the outcome. Palatka’s players, meanwhile, still in attendance, could only sit and watch and wonder what might have been as Leesburg won the title.

Class 3A was the class I had been waiting for all year, hoping Williston, another team I follow, would make it for the second straight year. Alas, Orlando Jones knocked the Red Devils out in the regional final.

Jones came in and whipped up on Tampa Catholic in the semifinals, but then lost to Tallahassee Rickards by six points in overtime for the title. In fact, Rickards played two of the most exciting games, winning each by the same margin and each went into an extra four minutes.

Classes 1A and 2A just don’t excite me … too many private schools dominating where the small public schools don’t have much chance. For the record, Weston Sagemont and Summit Christian of West Palm Beach won the state titles,

Next year, things will be different. The Florida High School Athletic Association is going to eight classes, which might mean that those early 10 a.m. semifinal games from last week will be even earlier, but maybe the small school playing field will be more equal.

We also don’t know where the tournament will be. Finalists are Lakeland, Orlando at the Amway Center, and Kissimmee at the Silver Spurs Arena.

But wherever they put it, I’ll find it, and hopefully some local area teams will also find their way to the state semifinals.


Jim Clark is the editor of the South Marion Citizen in Ocala. He attended his first state tournament in Jacksonville in 1970.

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