Back in November, Craig Bowman wasn’t where the conversation about Tampa Bay’s best points guards started.
But in March, he may be where it ends.
The Berkeley Prep senior will lead his Bucs (27-3) into the Lakeland Center on Tuesday night for a Class 4A state semifinal against Lake Highland Prep, looking to cap a breakout season with a state title.
“I think I’ve surprised a lot of people this year,” said Bowman, the Bucs’ floor general. “When I saw I wasn’t ranked in the top 25 players this year, it kind of hurt me. I wanted to prove I belonged in that group.”
And he has.
His numbers are up. He is averaging more assists and steals than he did last year. But his ability to increase his points per game from 10 to 15.4 helped the Bucs weather a storm of injuries.
Chris McWilliams, a starting guard last year, was already out when the season started. When starting forward Marshall Holmes (14 points per game last season) went down and missed 17 games, Bowman didn’t need to look any farther than the mirror to find a guy willing to rise to the challenge.
“When he went down, it totally changed my mind-set,” Bowman said.
What impressed Berkeley Prep coach Bobby Reinhart even more, however, was that Bowman remained a defensive force despite raising his offensive game. At 6-foot-3 with long, rangy arms, he was able to turn a good many of his 88 steals into points.
“Craig is just a type of kid that has to be on the floor for us to be successful,” he said. “What he does on the defensive end is equally as good, if not better in my opinion, than what he’s done on offense.”
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Bowman, whose younger brother Jalen played a few games for Lakewood’s final four team but spent most of his time on junior varsity, lives in St. Petersburg with his mother.
He played on the same nationally-ranked AAU team as current Spartan Anthony Lawrence Jr., Gibbs standout Barry Brown and St. Petersburg Division I signee Dayon Griffin.
He said choosing not to follow his boyhood friends to school in St. Petersburg, and instead waking up at 5 a.m. many mornings to get to Berkeley Prep early enough to shoot around before class, was a tough decision, but one he doesn’t regret.
“When I came here to look at the campus, I fell in love with it,” he said. “I wanted to take a different approach, try something new.”
While Lawrence, Brown and Griffin have gone on to grab more headlines in Pinellas County, Bowman’s father, Craig Sr. — a 1991 Gibbs graduate and former basketball player who now lives in Tampa — has been happy to see his son finally grab a few of his own.
“I felt he was a little overlooked, but he was patient with it,” Craig Sr. said. “I’ve watched him develop this year and gain more confidence. He’s put in a lot of hard work, I’m proud to see it pay off.”
And Bowman is quick to point out, with a chuckle, that he has never lost in 10 games against St. Petersburg high school teams, including wins this season over his former AAU teammates at Lakewood and Gibbs.
But he’d trade all 10 for two wins in Polk County this week, and the Bucs appear to be hitting their stride.
Holmes has back-to-back 22-point games, Justin Gray scored 20 with 12 rebounds in the region championship, and N’Namdi Green and Jacob Mathis has been forces down low.
They have been battle tested at the prestigious Kingdom of the Sun, where Bowman was named all-Tournament, and have beaten Tampa Prep, Lakewood and Shorecrest, three other final four teams.
“We have had a good season,” Bowman said, “and we have a chance to make it something special.”
4A state semifinal
Who: Berkeley Prep (27-3) vs. Lake Highland Prep (26-4)
When/where: 7 p.m. Tuesday; the Lakeland Center
Skinny: This is the Bucs’ second trip to state in three seasons, while the Highlanders are the defending 3A state champions and looking to make a third straight appearance in the final. The teams met Jan. 4 at Berkeley Prep, with LHP winning 62-54. But the Bucs were without Marshall Holmes, and Justin Gray left early in the second quarter after suffering a concussion. LHP is led by North Carolina signee Joel Berry, who is averaging 24 points per game, and 6-4 guard Jay Henderson (13 ppg). The Bucs trio of point guard Craig Bowman and forwards Gray (Texas Tech) and Holmes average a combined 48 points.
John C. Cotey can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.