LAKELAND — On the season’s biggest stage, Berkeley Prep was racing past its far more seasoned foe with surreal sleekness. For a mesmerizing half, the Buccaneers were gold on the perimeter and gritty in the paint.
Then, a seismic shift in momentum left them saddled with fouls and frustration. By night’s end, the Bucs could only watch as Fort Lauderdale Pine Crest sealed this Class 4A semifinal one torturous point at a time.
Ahead by as many as 17 in the second half, Berkeley (23-6) watched the Panthers score 40 of the game’s final 50 points in a 64-51 triumph.
The Bucs, who shot nearly 60 percent from the floor in the first half (14-for-24), converted all of four field goals in the second and had three players foul out.
“I think we actually scared them a little bit in the first half,” said Bucs sophomore Justin Gray (17 points), whose night ended when he landed awkwardly on his left ankle following a layup with 4:12 to play.
“And the second half was basically a lack of defense, lack of emotion. Just, the life on the court decreased a lot.”
It stood in stark contrast to what Gray and senior Nelson Agholor called the Bucs’ best half of the season. With Agholor slashing the lane at will and creating open looks for teammates on the perimeter, Berkeley built a 14-point first-half lead.
Craig Bowman’s 3-pointer 30 seconds into the second quarter made it 25-11. Gray, a prime beneficiary of Agholor’s distribution, had 13 points, three rebounds, a block and a steal at the break.
“That was Justin Gray’s game for a half,” Bucs coach Bobby Reinhart said.
Berkeley’s lead stood at 13 points at intermission when 6-foot-3 sophomore N’Namdi Green stripped a Panthers player in the Pine Crest paint and converted a layup with 15 seconds to go.
“I felt like the first half, we really didn’t execute well. We were a little bit too much one-on-one basketball,” said Pine Crest coach David Beckerman, whose team is making its sixth consecutive final four berth.
“But I think when we talked about it at halftime, the mental thought process was changed and the kids came to play defense. And once they started to play defense, it was obvious the game was going to change.”
It changed in a blur.
Gray’s layup off a turnover gave the Bucs a 41-24 lead with 6:04 to go, but Pine Crest ended the quarter on a 21-4 run. In a one-minute span late in the period, senior Will Graf hit a trey, followed by a rainbow-trajectory jumper and 3-pointer on the left wing by Aaron Scharf.
“I think we got a little heavy-legged,” said Reinhart, whose program was making its first final four appearance since 1967. “We weren’t guarding the perimeter the way we did early on.”
That cut Berkeley’s lead to 45-43. From there, Pine Crest’s guards worked the ball inside via penetration or dump-in passes to 6-7 junior Romas Marcinkevicius (13 points).
The Panthers were 19-for-29 from the free-throw line in the second half.
“One of the things we told our kids at halftime was, we felt like it was going to be really important to not put them on the free-throw line,” Reinhart said. “We wanted the clock moving, we wanted to keep our momentum going. But again, that’s what good teams do.”