TAMPA — Michael Keller wrapped a red T-shirt around his head and began to cry as the final buzzer sounded in Freedom’s 69-54 loss to Bartow in a Class 7A region final Saturday.
His face red with tears, Keller trudged toward the long line of smiling Bartow players and coaches, who were eagerly waiting to shake hands and celebrate their second straight trip to the state final four.
But before he could take a step, Patriots coach Cedric Smith reached out and wrapped the senior into his arms for a hug.
“This is my family. I love them like brothers,” said Keller, who finished with a team-high 18 points, including three 3-pointers. “I would do anything for any of them. And that coach in there, he’s a Hall of Famer, man.”
For three years, Smith had worked to rebuild Freedom (18-7), leading the Patriots from just eight wins in 2011-12 to the Class 7A District 8 championship this season.
Still, Smith said, he knew going in it would be a challenge to keep up with the Yellow Jackets’ athleticism.
“That is a really good team. I thought that we would have to play an almost-perfect game to be able to win,” he said. “(Bartow coach Terrence McGriff) has been doing this a long time. He’s been here before. This was our first taste.”
Bartow (20-10) showed its experience and jumped on Freedom right from the start. The Yellow Jackets opened the first quarter 6-for-6 from the field for a 13-2 run just four minutes in.
But after a timeout by Smith, seniors Malik Robinson (six points) and Riley Blake (five) helped the Patriots regroup for a 9-0 run that cut the deficit to four points.
That’s as close as it would get the rest of the night.
Led by 6-foot-9 sophomore Tony Bradley (27 points, three blocks), the Yellow Jackets built a 12-point advantage at the half and pulled away to take a 21-point lead in the third, their largest of the night.
From there, Bartow cruised, hitting 8 of 11 free throws down the stretch.
“We bought into this from Day 1 and look at us now,” Keller said. “We made it to the regional finals. No one expected us to be here; we were underdogs. But we made it and I’m happy.”