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LAKELAND — In past years, Joe Fenlon’s worst-case scenarios have gone to roost in this palatial Polk County landmark.
For Tampa Prep’s veteran coach, The Lakeland Center has been a bastion of overtime defeats and overwhelming ones, losses borne of ticky-tack fouls and off-trajectory free throws. Seven different years he has tried to win a state title here. Seven years of bad luck.
But on Tuesday night, fate finally flashed the 50-year-old coach a grin. Now, he’s one victory from grinning back.
With clutch free-throw shooting and suffocating defensive pressure, the Terrapins (30-1) erased a six-point deficit in the final two minutes of regulation then pulled away in overtime for a 56-50 triumph against Jacksonville Providence (28-3) in the Class 3A state semifinals.
The Terps made nine of their final 12 free throws after hitting four of their first 14. The last two, by junior point guard Josh Heath (21 points, four assists) with 17.9 seconds to play, sealed things.
“I think the kids showed a lot of moxie, to be honest with you,” Fenlon said. “And when it went into overtime, I think we had momentum on our side.”
Tampa Prep hosts Weston Sagemont Christian in Thursday’s 10 a.m. final. If the past four days are any sign, he’s poised to vanquish all those previous maddening Marches.
Consider: Tuesday’s victory was his first in three state tournament overtime games. Tampa Prep’s past two wins have come against the teams (Providence, Orlando First Academy) that knocked it out of its previous two final fours.
And with roughly a minute to play in regulation Tuesday and his team down by three, Fenlon watched Stallions 6-foot-7 freshman Wyatt Walker miss an uncontested layup on a fastbreak.
“I think you make that layup and the momentum just kind of shifts a little bit,” Providence coach Jim Martin said.
“I don’t know about that,” Fenlon said. “I’ve been here eight times, these kids haven’t. … We are a team that’s difficult to guard because many kids can score on a given day. I think we create problems for our opponents. So is it fate? I’ll let you know Thursday.”
Back to Tuesday. The Terrapins trailed by five after a miserable third period in which they scored four points and were outrebounded 15-5. The deficit reached six, 47-41, on Tyler Martin’s free throw with 2:26 to play.
But Providence never hit another field goal, and Tampa Prep clawed back.
A Bernard Woodside basket and two free throws by Butler University signee Devontae Morgan made it 47-45 with 1:26 to play. But five seconds later, Morgan was slapped with his fifth foul while pressing near midcourt.
“To think that his career was over like this at Tampa Prep, it really got into my head to pick it up and end the season right,” Heath said.
Heath would sink two free throws with 16.5 seconds to go — after a Providence travel — to tie the score at 48 and force overtime. A second-chance basket in the paint by Ephraim Lavey, and a reverse layup by Heath, gave the Terps a 52-48 overtime lead.
Heath would miss two free throws with 40.7 ticks to go, but Tampa Prep snagged the rebound. Ten seconds later, Marshall Holmes (13 points, four steals) made two more free throws to make it 54-50. A missed Providence jumper from the wing, then a push-off foul, set up Heath’s final free throws.
“We had to be the aggressor to get back in the game, and I think we stayed aggressive in the overtime,” Fenlon said. “And ultimately, I think that made the difference in the game.”