ST. PETERSBURG — The energy had bubbled up and over. Anthony Lawrence Jr. had kept his emotions sealed for an unnerving 34 minutes of basketball before they spilled out in the frantic final two minutes of regulation and overtime Friday night.
Lawrence needed redemption for Lakewood and himself.
For most of the first half, he was reduced to a witness. He watched as childhood friend Barry Brown fueled Gibbs’ first-half offensive explosion by swishing 3-pointers to give the Gladiators an 11-point halftime lead.
In the second half, though, Lawrence was unleashed and he breathed a bit of life into the Spartans as they mounted a furious comeback in a physical 53-52 overtime victory over Gibbs. It was payback for Lakewood, which lost by a point in overtime to the Gladiators last year.
“I just knew in the second half I was going to have to step up to get us fired up,” Lawrence said.
After a subpar first half, the Spartans (5-1) refused to allow Brown to beat them anymore from long range. Brown, who finished the first half with 15 points, including four 3-pointers, scored just six in the second half, four on free throws.
Lakewood’s tight defense wasn’t just stretched to the perimeter. Lawrence also made sure it was felt inside. Brow furrowed and jaw clenched, Lawrence’s post position grew deeper and deeper in the second half. On several possessions, he had Gibbs defenders virtually pinned as planted sequoias beneath the basket.
By grabbing rebounds, creating turnovers and swatting shots, Lawrence helped ignite the Spartans on a run in which they outscored the Gladiators 21-13 in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 41-38. In the fourth, Lakewood kept chipping away until it tied the game at 48 at the end of regulation. Lawrence came up with three big rebounds down the stretch, including the one that sent the game into overtime.
“In the second half we just executed our offense better,” Spartans coach Anthony Lawrence Sr. said. “We were throwing up crazy shots in the first half. We needed to settle down and score out of our offense. And we had to limit Barry Brown from shooting as much on the outside.”
In overtime, the teams traded baskets before Lakewood’s Jared Gregory hit a pair of free throws and teammate Shabazz Waller hit one on the following possession to give the Spartans a 53-50 lead.
Brown followed by hitting two free throws to make it 53-52. Lakewood had a chance to ice the game on a long inbounds pass for a would-be breakaway layup. But traveling was called. That gave Gibbs the ball with 7.1 seconds remaining. Brown took the last shot and missed the layup. Lawrence grabbed the rebound, his third in overtime.
It was a tough loss for the Gladiators, who fell to 3-2 with their second one-point loss this season.
“We just turned the ball over too much down the stretch,” Gibbs coach Larry Murphy said. “We’re young and we’re going to go through those growing pains. But we’ll be okay.”