NEW PORT RICHEY — A last chance to win its own Rotary Ram Classic seemed well out of Ridgewood's grasp, as the Rams trailed undefeated Plant by a dozen midway through the third quarter Thursday.
But in an game where both teams went long periods of being offensively challenged, Plant suffered the most detrimental stretch. The Panthers were almost shut out in the fourth quarter and Ridgewood, in its final months as a high school and set to drop sports programs, advanced to the final with a 43-36 victory.
Ridgewood (10-2) faces another Class 8A, District 8 foe, Sickles, in Friday's 7:30 p.m. championship. Sickles (7-3) routed Clearwater Central Catholic 55-27 in the first of three winners' bracket games. The two teams with the better margin of victory Thursday earned the championship berth.
The middle contest saw King's Academy (West Palm Beach) take a thriller, 56-53 over Wesley Chapel, so Ridgewood (Class 5A) knew it had to win by at least three. That seemed out of the question when Plant (8-1) produced the first seven points of the second half for a 28-16 advantage.
"The halftime message was to finish out defensive possessions, and to executive offensively. We were a little too frantic in the first half," said Ridgewood coach Derek Delgardo.
Plant's Ronald Boyd (16 points) had taken over in the second quarter, scoring 10 including a pair of 3s. Ridgewood hadn't hit its first field goal until Josh Vail's 3 with 1:55 left in the the third quarter, followed by another Vail 3 that had Ridgewood up 9-7 at period's end. But outside of those consecutive makes, the Rams went 3-for-22 in the half.
Boyd's 3, followed by his steal which led to a Chance Jackson putback, made it 28-16, but Will Dawson's 3 sparked the Rams offense and it was 33-26 entering the fourth. But Plant missed 14 straight field-goal attempts as well as two front ends of one-and-ones. A fast-break layup by Jacob Powell had the home crowd charged up and Ty Quiroz drained a 3 with 5:00 left for a lead the Rams would not relinquish.
But there was still the matter of margin. In fact, had it been three — the same as King's Academy's — Delgardo, as tourney host, had a decision to make.
"Honestly, I don't know what we would have done. I'd never considered a tie. I guess that's bad," said Delgardo.
Plant sure could have made it interesting, but missed two layups that would have cut the lead to one in the ifinal minutes as Ridgewood was turning over the ball five times. In fact the score was stuck at 36-33 for more than three minutes until Vail (team-high 12 points) scored, then Ameer Ford came up with a block and two free throws for an seven-point advantage. Boyd's 3 broke Plant's drought with 23 seconds left but Vail scored again.
The game matched the two teams with the best records in the 12-team field. While Ridgewood ended the night with a 17-3 quarter, that's how Sickles started in a suprisingly easy win against CCC (5-3). Bryce Workman scored 18 points for Sickles while pulling down 13 rebounds, and Denari Garrett added 16, including a pair of spectacular dunks.
Sophomore Johnny Newton was the lone Marauder in double figures with 10 points. Each team made just one 3-pointer.
Sickles coach Michael Weaving will be making a second straight appearance in the final, and from his experience with King High last year was well aware of the unique format. The Gryphons were up 30-7 right before halftime and though CCC grabbed the next seven points, the margin never got any lower.
"Being in the first game, you have no idea what's going to happen next. We had good effort, intensity, all the things you look for in the second half," Weaving said.
Sickles just needed one of the next two games to be close, and that was taken care of by the following contest as Wesley Chapel and King's Academy (5-5) stayed tight throughout the second half. The Wildcats (6-5) were down 12-3 early but had it closed to 17-14 at first quarter's end, and Chapel went on a 6-0 run in the final 40 seconds of the first half for a 30-30 intermission score.
Chapel surged ahead 47-42 early in the fourth quarter only to turn it over on four of the next five possessions, falling behind 52-49. But Isaiah Ramsey, who led the Wildcats with 18 points, scored and after a turnover Brendan Boger put Chapel ahead with 20 seconds left.
King's answered with a drive by guard Calvin Johnson, who was fouled and made both free throws with 15 seconds remaining. Chapel had plenty of time to answer but never got off a shot, and the Lions made a shot at the buzzer to add a layer of drama to the point-margin situation.
Johnson finished with a game-high 24 points. For the Wildcats, Cameran Boger added 11 points and Matthias Burnett had eight, all in the first half.
East Lake, which lost to Sickles in the first round, will play King's in the third-place game Friday at 6 p.m. Plays begins at noon with CCC against Chapel — the bracket would have had CCC against Anclote but those squads faced off Wednesday. Plant will instead take on Anclote at 1:30, followed by River Ridge-Citrus (3) and Springstead-Leto (4:30).