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LAKELAND — His team had a nine-point lead with 96 seconds remaining in Friday’s Class 2A semifinals, but Tampa Prep coach Joe Fenlon knew better than to exhale.
Decades-old demons, after all, aren’t that easy to exorcise.
“Maybe other people get to have nice blowouts and things like that in the state tournament,” said Fenlon, trying to notch his first win against Panhandle nemesis Port St. Joe in five state tournament meetings. “We don’t.”
So Fenlon’s insides churned as he watched his team miss five of its last nine free-throw attempts, get slapped with a lane violation on another try and surrender four 3-point shots to make it a one-point game.
Then and only then were Fenlon’s tube sock-laden tormenters vanquished.
With a final possession and 11.2 seconds remaining, Port St. Joe worked the ball around the perimeter, unable to find an open look against the Terrapins’ suffocating traps. An off-balance jumper near the top of the key by Roman Quinn missed as the final horn sounded.
Tampa Prep 49, Fenlon’s demons 48. The Terps (26-4) face top-ranked Jacksonville Providence in today’s noon title game.
“It feels good,” said senior Jamal Cherry, one of two Terrapins on the team when Port St. Joe defeated Tampa Prep in overtime of the 2007 semifinals. “You get to hit them with the punch they hit you with.”
No one had awaited that feeling longer than Fenlon, recipient of four previous Sharks haymakers dating to 1997.
“We had a one-point lead and we had to play defense,” the Terps’ 27th-year coach said, “and our kids really played one heck of a last possession on defense.”
Before delivering that decisive defensive stand, the Terrapins delivered a few palpitations to the hundreds who followed them to the Lakeland Center for Friday’s late-morning tipoff.
The score was tied 22-all after one half, which featured six lead changes and 12 points by Terrapins 6-foot-5 senior Jay Bowie. The Sharks scored the first six points of the second half, but Tampa Prep answered with a 13-0 run for a 35-28 lead. Cherry scored six in the spurt.
When Cherry sank the second of two free throws with 1:36 to go, the Terps led 45-36. Eight seconds later, Sharks junior Calvin Pryor (20 points) nailed a 3. Forced to foul from there, Port St. Joe sent the Terps to the line five times.
They came away with four points.
“If you’re going to come back,” Sharks coach and former Clearwater assistant Derek Kurnitsky said, “the other team’s got to help you out a little bit.”
While the Terps struggled from the stripe, Willie Quinn, Pryor and Raheem Clemons drained 3s in roughly a half-minute span to make it 49-48. With 11.2 seconds to go, Bowie barely drew rim on his first free-throw try before the Terps were whistled for a lane violation on his second.
That set up the final stand for Tampa Prep, which had fallen in its previous two state semifinal games in overtime.
“I’m like, ‘Oh no, here we go again,’ ” Fenlon said. “I kept telling them all we’ve got to do is D it up one time. One possession, that’s all we needed. …They did.”