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WINTER HAVEN — The desperation was spelled out on the scoreboard, across Largo’s bench and, finally, in its lineup. The Packers were teetering before finding momentary salvation from an obvious source.
Largo trailed Winter Haven by 20 entering the fourth quarter of Saturday’s Class 6A region final. The starting backcourt was in disarray with Curtis Reed injured and Reggie Moore fouled out. A bad start to the game could have become profoundly worse.
But as he has done throughout the playoffs, Donavan Hale seized the moment. He wasn’t alone. Lorenzo Marry and Juwan Brown asserted themselves. And Maurice Murphy and Xavier Almonte forced their way into prominence as the Packers mounted a furious rally.
Still, after a postseason in which odds were defied and the unexpected became routine, Largo could not summon another thrilling victory. Despite outscoring the Blue Devils 27-9 in the fourth, the Packers could not get the final shot to fall at the buzzer and lost 66-64.
“We fought hard,” said coach Phil Price, whose team failed to reach the state semifinals for the first time since 1998. “I told the players
in the locker room, you’ll succeed in life if you never quit. They sure didn’t in this one.”
Through most of the first three quarters, Hale was trapped, looking for a little daylight in an evening that did not want to give him any. Winter Haven (21-10) rarely let Hale get to the basket without a bump, bang or bruise. Hale also was hurt by foul trouble after picking up two charges, and he finished the first half with just six points.
But Largo’s ills were voluminous and widespread, particularly in the second quarter, when it was outscored 23-5. Largo committed turnovers, missed layups and saw other shots blocked.
“We just had one bad quarter,” Price said. “We had the game tied at 17 after the first quarter. Then we let the pressure get to us.”
Trailing 40-22 at the half, the Packers (23-6) knew there were kinks to be worked out. But they also believed they could rally if they maintained their focus and kept their patience.
Largo couldn’t put a dent into the deficit in the third quarter. In fact, the gap widened to 57-37.
The rally was spearheaded primarily by Hale. He scored 18 of his 31 points in the quarter. A lot of those points came off turnovers created by the Packers’ pressure.
A 3-pointer by Almonte cut it to 65-64 in the final 10 seconds. Winter Haven’s Ismael Celestn made 1 of 2 free throws in the final eight seconds.
Without any timeouts, Largo had to rush two shots, both of which missed.
“I just had to step up,” Hale said. “I really thought we were going to win. But I’m proud of the way we came back. Most teams would have laid down behind that much in the fourth quarter.”
7A: Stuart Martin County dispatches St. Petersburg
STUART — With his team down four at the half and struggling to score against a bigger opponent, Stuart Martin County coach John Leon tossed the playbook aside and worked to get his players to focus.
It was the right move.
Martin County took the lead on Denson Lumene’s basket with 5:38 left and went on to beat St. Petersburg 62-53 in a Class 7A region final. The win avenged last year’s loss to the Green Devils in the region final.
“I think we just wanted it,” Leon said. “We were outsized and outmanned. That will, what we talk about in the locker room, they just overcame that and got it done.”
After Lumene put the Tigers up 45-44, St. Petersburg (21-8) went back up with a 3-pointer by Demontrae Adams. But Lumene answered with another basket. After Trey Graham stretched the lead to 50-47 on a putback, St. Petersburg tied it on a basket by Terrell Burney, who led all scorers with 24 points. But a free throw by Lumene gave the Tigers (26-3) the lead for good at 51-50 with 3:21 left, and they made 10 of 14 free throws over the final 2:19.
“This means everything,” Lumene said. “We tried to make history this year.”
For much of the game, it seemed like St. Petersburg’s size — 6 feet 6, 6-7, 6-8 across the front line — combined with poor shooting would undo the Tigers.
“We knew it was going to be a fight all the way to the end,” St. Petersburg coach Chris Blackwell said. “With (Jermohn) Queen out there, you know they’re not going to give up. He got to the lane and caused us some problems. But they were really determined.”
Queen had 20 points, five assists and six steals.
“You’ve got to stop him from coming inside,” Blackwell said. “But he shoots the ball well. It was just their year. Fate was just on their side.”
Aimee Ford Foster, Special to the Times