LAKELAND — Lakewood’s Mike Clark cupped the ball with both hands as he rose into the air from the lane, soaring above the court even though he saw danger ahead.
Standing in the way was Gainesville Eastside’s Thomas Lundy. The brazen Clark just soared higher and over the reach of the 6-foot-2 Lundy’s wingspan for a jaw-dropping, twisting, two-handed reverse dunk.
It was that early fourth-quarter jam that punctured a hole in the Rams’ fighting spirit, giving the Spartans a comfortable nine-point lead.
Teammates Jacobi Boykins and Anthony Lawrence Jr. provided the encore as they continued with the highlight-fodder dunks that kept Lakewood’s offense humming in Friday’s 60-46 victory in the Class 5A state semifinals.
The Spartans (20-11) advance to Saturday’s 10 a.m. championship game against Plantation American Heritage at the Lakeland Center.
“We’re big and athletic,” Lakewood coach Anthony Lawrence Sr. said. “(Mike) Clark is one of the best athletes in the state when it comes to playing basketball. He really got us going.”
As fearsome as the Spartans’ trio of formidable dunkers can be in midair, it was their ability to force Eastside fouls on their way to the basket that made a difference.
By being aggressive, Lakewood forced 20 personal fouls to be called on the Rams. Once the Spartans got to the line, they made them count, finishing 19-of-29 in free throws.
“Our game plan was to keep driving,” Lawrence Sr. said. “We wanted to push the ball and get a lot of easy buckets. And the free throws were huge. That was something we worked on all week and for us to make them, especially on such a big stage as this, was important.”
At the start of the game, Lakewood fell behind 5-2. Boykins got the Spartans on track with a layup and hitting a free throw on their next possession to tie the game. That ignited a 12-2 run that gave Lakewood a 14-7 first quarter lead.
Eastside made another run at the start of the third quarter that cut it to 26-25, but never led.
Sticking to their game plan, the Spartans battled inside to score, as well as pick up fouls. Joc Ellison and Clark each hit layup and a free throw to complete three-point plays on consecutive possessions to give Lakewood a 32-25 lead.
Eastside stayed within striking distance until the fourth quarter. Leading 45-40, Clark hit two free throws and then threw down his dunk to make it 47-40.
Soon after, the Spartans slowed things down, spreading the floor as they moved the ball to kill time. The only time they pushed it was in transition, which led to dunks by Boykins and Lawrence Jr.
The Rams, meanwhile, had trouble scoring at all. It wasn’t until the final two minutes of regulation that Eastside scored its first points in the fourth quarter.
“I think in the fourth quarter we started to get tired,” Rams coach Pop Williams said. “We missed some shots and didn’t fight as hard for rebounds.”
Lawrence Jr. finished with 18, including 8-of-10 from the line, to lead Lakewood.
This is the first time any current Spartan has played in a state final. Saturday, they will try to win the school’s third state title in boys basketball; the last came in 2005.
“It’s just such a tremendous feeling,” Lawrence Sr. said. “I played here and never made it. I remember those times of just wanting to be here. I came to the state tournament and watched when they made it before.
“Now we have that opportunity to win it. It puts into perspective all the hard work that led up to this point.”
Bob Putnam can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BobbyHomeTeam.