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ST. PETERSBURG — They anticipate the boos arising from the throngs clad in blue and yellow as soon as they walk onto the floor at Don Wallen Gym on Saturday night in the Class 7A region final.
St. Petersburg’s players and coaches spent the past three days preparing to play Stuart Martin County in a gym where the cacophony can reach ear-splitting levels. The resultant delirium is a big reason the Tigers have lost only twice at home in four seasons.
“We’ve never been there, but we’re already scouting reports on what it’s like to play there,” Green Devils coach Chris Blackwell said. “It’s the only game in town over there, and it’s a big gym that fills up fast. It’s like a college atmosphere, from what I hear.”
Stuart, a city where high school stars are household names, has a loyal following with the boys basketball program at Martin County. St. Petersburg (21-7) found out last season when it hosted the Tigers in a region final. Martin County filled half the stands and a radio crew made the trip to broadcast the game.
“We know they’ll be out there in full force,” Green Devils guard Dayon Griffin said. “They definitely showed up last year when it was here.”
The fans will be rabid, anticipating Martin County’s first trip to the state final four since 1987. But St. Petersburg is used to playing in hostile environments, thanks to a schedule that included many road games against tough competition.
Of the Green Devils’ 28 games, 15 were against teams that made the playoffs this season. St. Petersburg has traveled to play Jesuit, Bradenton IMG and went to the Kissimmee Shootout to face teams such as Fort Lauderdale Dillard.
“The biggest thing I can say is we’re battle-tested,” Blackwell said. “We’re used to going on the road and playing in tight games in front of big crowds. And it’s not just traveling outside the area. Pinellas County basketball is so deep that it’s a dogfight every night around here.”
Blackwell designed a schedule that yielded few easy nights by design. He wanted his teams prepared for anything, not just the surroundings but also the style of play with each opponent. The Green Devils have gone up against IMG’s imposing frontcourt, Jesuit’s sharp-shooting guards and Haines City’s withering fullcourt pressure.
“There isn’t anything a team can throw at us that we haven’t seen this season,” Blackwell said. “We’ve been up against just about everything.”
St. Petersburg can also take solace in knowing it is playing its best basketball of the season. After a midseason slump that included losses to Countryside and Seminole, the Green Devils have gone on a tear, winning nine of their past 10.
“We’re peaking at just the right time,” guard Demontrae Adams said. “This is when we want to be playing our best. I’m a senior and this is my last chance to go back to the state final four, and I want to do everything I can to get there.”
A return trip to the state semifinals will depend largely on how the Green Devils react to the crowd noise. The players know the best way to lower the decibels in the gym is to play superb basketball.
“All we have to worry about is what happens on the court,” Griffin said. “The rest will take care of itself.”
Largo (23-5) at Winter Haven (20-10): The Packers are trying to reach the state semifinals for the first time since 1998. Donavan Hale, who has been the catalyst for Largo to rally past Armwood and Sickles in the first two rounds of the playoffs, will have to come through again. Winter Haven not only has homecourt advantage but also playoff experience. The Blue Devils advanced to the state semifinals last year and are trying to make their fifth final four appearance in 11 seasons.