TAMPA — Every day after practice, Lennard junior Diontae Johnson practices free throws for 10 minutes in anticipation of moments like the one he faced late in the Longhorns’ Class 6A, District 9 final against Jefferson, Saturday night at Hillsborough.
With the Longhorns leading by a point with 28 seconds left, Johnson stepped to the line for two critical free throws and sank both. After a Jefferson turnover and another free throw by Caelen Watts, Lennard outlasted Jefferson for a 73-69 victory and the school’s first district title.
“My heart was beating pretty hard right there,” Johnson said. “In my mind, I was like ‘please don’t miss.’ But I took my time, followed through and they went in.”
Jefferson (21-7) led by four with 3:31 to go after senior forward Tamir Blackshear took over in the second half, scoring 21 of his team-high 23 points after the break. Lennard (22-4) wouldn’t go away though, mainly because of a trapping, high-pressure defense that forced 30 turnovers. Lennard’s Gary Hector (16 points) hit a basket to cut the deficit to two, and on the Longhorns’ next possession, Watts (game-high 25 points) hit a bucket and free throw for a one-point lead with 2:48 left.
Jefferson retook the lead, but Johnson’s 3-pointer put Lennard ahead for good.
“I just took my time and used the same confidence I do every day in practice,” Johnson said.
Maurice Moore stole the ball and made a layup to get Jefferson within one. The Dragons forced another steal, but missed a second layup. Johnson hit his two free throws, and the Dragons turned the ball over on their next two possessions.
“Defense is a staple of our program,” Lennard coach Danny Gaddis said. “That’s what we preach.”
Lennard was up five at halftime and led throughout the third quarter. Jefferson clawed back in the fourth behind Blackshear, who tied the score early in the fourth on a three-point play. Blackshear hit on three straight possessions to push Jefferson’s lead to four.