ST. PETERSBURG — Michael Clark has been unable to decipher his role for Lakewood this season after transferring over from Boca Ciega.
Tuesday night, he finally found the answer:
Right underneath the basket.
The senior cleaned up after his teammates time after time in a Class 5A region semifinal against Gibbs, boosting Lakewood past the Gladiators 63-60.
“I knew I was going to be the clean-up guy,” said Clark, who finished with 23 points. “I had to find a way to get myself in the game and going at the rim is how I do that.”
Neither team shot the ball well, but Lakewood had Clark to score six baskets off rebounds as the Spartans dominated inside for most of the game.
“Mike coming in this year was a big blessing, but for a while it was tough for him to find his way,” Lakewood coach Anthony Lawrence Sr. said. “He kept trying to find his place here. Tonight, he really came alive. He did everything we needed him to do.”
Gibbs beat Lakewood (18-11) twice during the regular season by three and four points, but lost to the Spartans Tuesday and in the district final by three and four points, respectively.
The victory sends Lakewood to Cape Coral to face Mariner on Saturday. The Spartans haven’t advanced past the region finals since 2008.
Though the game at Eckerd College was mostly close, Gibbs was always playing catchup. The Gladiators (18-9) only had one brief lead — 32-31 with 58 seconds left in the first half — as the Spartans made a 7-0 run to start the game hold up.
Clark’s dunk gave Lakewood the 35-32 lead at halftime, and a dunk to end the third quarter by Jacobi Boykins (12 points) put the Spartans ahead 54-48 heading into the final eight minutes.
The teams exchanged baskets throughout the last quarter, until a Shaq Speights basket cut the Gibbs deficit to 62-60 with 35 seconds left.
After an offensive foul on Lakewood’s Anthony Lawrence Jr., Gibbs had a chance to tie or take the lead, but missed a driving shot. Spartan guard Joc Ellison came up with the ball in the scramble, calling timeout with 4.9 seconds remaining.
He went to the free-throw line and made one to make it 63-60, and Gibbs raced up court for the tie. But its final shot attempt bounced off the backboard and swirled around the rim and out.
“I almost expected it to go in and we’d go to overtime, because that’s just the way these games go,” Lawrence Sr. said.