Boys basketball: Postseason experience pays off for St. Petersburg

Published February 22

PLANT CITY — For the first time in four seasons, St. Petersburg started the playoffs on the road.

It was unfamiliar territory for nearly everyone on the team. Serrel Smith was the exception.  The Mississippi signee was a freshman the last time the Green Devils were a district runnerup.

St. Petersburg went on to play in the state semifinals that season, starting the most successful run in school history.

Now, Smith was back where he started in the postseason — on the road, this time playing Plant City in the Class 8A region quarterfinals. The crowd was big — and boisterous. After all, the Raiders were hosting a playoff game for the first time since 1993.

But it was not enough to rattle the Green Devils, who rallied from a first-half deficit to win 72-63.

"I think the difference was we've been in these situations before," St. Petersburg coach Chris Blackwell said. "We have guys, especially Serrel, who are poised. We fell behind, but we never let the game get away. And that's a credit to these guys."

Early on, Plant City (23-5) had things going on offense. Jadyn Strawder, who finished with five 3-pointers, got hot from the outside. Justyn King, who surpassed 1,000 career points, was a force inside. And Matt Simpson hit shots from all angles.

The Raiders went up by four after the first quarter and went into halftime with a 33-31 lead.

It did not faze the Green Devils (22-5).

By the end of the third quarter, St. Petersburg went ahead 49-48.

The game was tight down the stretch with both teams trading baskets — and leads. The pivotal moment came with just under three minutes left. Smith stole the ball near midcourt before assisting on a layup. On the Green Devils' next possession, Smith became a contortionist, twisting and turning his body into all kinds of unnatural positions before making a shot that gave his team a 57-53 lead.

Plant City still was within striking distance with about a minute left. Trailing 64-60, Simpson drove and was called for a charge, picking up his fifth foul.

Simpson was not the only Raider who fouled out. So did Emmanuel Baez and Triston Evans.

"The fouls caught up to us," Plant City coach Billy Teeden said. "It's tough to have three starters with fouls and trying to figure out what the best approach is at that point."

Strawder finished with 18 points, and Simpson and King each added 15 for the Raiders.

St. Petersburg's Tai Strickland, who had colleges such as Maryland, Rutgers and SMU in attendance, led all scorers with 24 points. Smith had 20.

Last week, the Green Devils lost to rival Countryside in the district final. That meant St. Petersburg would have to win on the road to even get another chance at the Cougars.

Countryside, though, lost to Tampa Bay Tech in the quarterfinals. The Green Devils now get an unexpected home game against the Titans in Tuesday's region semifinals.

"Sometimes you need have some breaks at this point of the season," Blackwell said. "We got one. Not only are we coming back to play in Pinellas County, but we're doing it at home."

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