ST. PETERSBURG — The pieces were already in place for St. Petersburg to make a championship run.
There was Dayon Griffin who can bring the ball up the court, pass to teammates or score himself.
There was Ben Clare, who can slash inside and grab rebounds.
And there was Terrell Burney who can make jumpers from 15, 20, 25 feet away.
The bonus came with the arrival of Darius Banks, a freshman sensation who averaged about 20 points as an eighth-grader at Academy Prep and shined on the AAU circuit.
Because of the number of playmakers, Banks did not have to be an every-night dynamo. But it was hard to ignore his ability, especially when he would receive passes, create a sliver of space and let effortless jump shots fly from beyond the 3-point arc.
His shooting touch has given St. Petersburg (22-3) an added dimension as it heads into Saturday’s Class 8A region final against Winter Park (26-3).
“(Darius) has exceeded all expectations that I had for him this season,” Green Devils coach Chris Blackwell said.
Banks, a 6-foot-5 guard, already has an offer from Florida International and has received interest from several other schools, including Florida, Louisville and Texas.
Still, Banks had a difficult transition to high school basketball.
He had to adjust to the speed of the game as well as a new role that did not require him to do everything.
In the regular-season opener against rival Seminole, Banks was out of rotation on a defensive assignment, allowing an easy basket in what turned out to be a tight game. During a timeout, Griffin laid into his new teammate for his defensive lapse.
“It was tough at first,” Banks said. “I had to let the game come to me. I think I was trying to do too much when I got here because that’s what I was used to.”
The turning point, Banks said, came in December, when the Green Devils traveled to Tallahassee for a tournament. Playing in front of large, hostile crowds, Banks played a pivotal role as he helped St. Petersburg beat state-ranked Tallahassee Rickards and Tallahassee Leon.
“The gym was packed every night during that tournament,” Banks said. “It was standing-room only. I was getting more comfortable and felt like I played well in that kind of atmosphere.”
Banks’ biggest game came a month later, when he scored 33 points, including a school-record nine 3-pointers, in a win against Palm Harbor University. Banks was hot early, scoring 25 by halftime before he started deferring to teammates.
“It took a little while for Darius to get comfortable, but he has really come on and played some big minutes for us,” Blackwell said.
“The great thing about him is that he’s humble. You’d never know he was this highly touted player being around him. He’s just always looking to get better. In practice, he wants to guard Dayon to help him improve.”
Banks is averaging 17 points per game. That kind of production will be neededto knock off a Winter Park team that is scoring 65 points per game.
“We’re ready,” Banks said. “We feel if we can win this game, we can go on and win it all.”
Lakewood at Cape Coral Mariner
Outlook: The Spartans (18-11) are playing their best basketball of the season with nine straight wins, including 63-60 over rival Gibbs to reach the region final for the first time since 2010. Lakewood has a pair of dynamic scorers in Jacobi Boykins and Anthony Lawrence Jr. But the Spartans also have gotten a boost from Michael Clark, who finished with 23 points against the Gladiators. The Tritons (21-8) are in the playoffs for the fifth straight season and the region final for the third time during that span. In January, Gibbs beat Mariner 74-46, the Tritons’ worst loss of the season. Mariner’s top two scorers are Rodney Hunter (19.1 points per game) and Kaleb Darrett (14.4).