LAKELAND — For the seventh time in his coaching life, Tampa Prep’s Joe Fenlon found himself at that proverbial Polk County doorstep, a state title lurking somewhere on the other side.
For the seventh time, he was turned away like a pesky, persistent magazine solicitor, Time and Life his primary wares.
Wednesday’s 68-49 loss to Orlando First Academy in the Class 2A semifinals? Sobering as it seems, that’s Life, Fenlon suggested.
Perhaps in the near future, his Time will come.
At any rate, he’s bent on returning to knock another day.
“Someone asked me earlier this week, do you feel snakebitten? No, I feel fortunate,” Fenlon said after watching the Terrapins (25-4) tally more turnovers (19) than field goals (17) before a modest Wednesday afternoon audience at the Lakeland Center.
“I put my head on the pillow like every other coach in the state of Florida wishing I could wear a gold medal when I walked out of the gym in Lakeland, and it just hasn’t worked for me, which just tells me it’s not my time yet.”
Arriving with one of his youngest Terrapins teams in tow, Fenlon watched the Terps succumb to a Royals squad with a little more sleekness, seasoning and speed in transition.
The Royals (25-5), who led from wire to wire, shot 53.2 percent from the floor for the game (25-for-47) and exploited Tampa Prep’s miscues with easy baskets on the other end. Behind rangy junior Dillon Graham (21 points), First Academy finished with 32 points in the paint.
Meantime, the Terps struggled from the floor (17-for-44) and were hamstrung early when top scorer Devontae Morgan was whistled for two first-period fouls. Helping assume the slack: sophomore Ephraim Lavey (14 points), who didn’t crack the starting lineup until January.
“I think we ran into a team that was a little more savvy than we were,” said Fenlon, who started two sophomores and got 43 points from non-seniors. “A lot has been said about our youth, and we’ll never use that as an (excuse), but you could tell the difference.”
All nine of Morgan’s points came in the fourth quarter, including a 3-pointer that capped a 7-0 run to start the fourth and make it a nine-point game.
“Devontae’s gone out in other games with two fouls early and we’ve always found ways to keep ourself in the game,” point guard Josh Heath (12 points) said. “So I felt we could do it again.”
Not this time. Taylor Akers answered with a 3-pointer on the other end to put the Royals back ahead, 51-39. Their lead never dipped below 10 again, and was all but sealed with 2:56 to go when Graham’s high off-balance pass from the perimeter instead banked in for a trey.
“Any time someone banks a 3 on us in Lakeland, we’ve never won,” Fenlon said.
Such is Life.