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LAKELAND —- The 17-year-old mind beneath that burgeoning Afro was throbbing. But on the outside, Josh Heath might as well have been dealing poker instead of bounce passes.
Tampa Prep was down by three in Tuesday’s state semifinals, and Butler-bound Terrapins senior Devontae Morgan had just fouled out. Eighty-one seconds remained in the game. Heath remained courtroom stoic.
“I was definitely freaking out in my head,” Heath said, “but trying to keep a calm face, make sure all my teammates see my face and hopefully they’ll stay calm. And for the most part, we were calm. …We just kept playing and playing and playing.”
Arguably, no Terrapin played better than the one with the prominent hair and hoops pedigree.
“He played like a kid that was the captain of the ship,” Terps coach Joe Fenlon said.
In the final, feverish stretch of Tampa Prep’s 56-50 overtime win against Jacksonville Providence, Heath went 4-for-6 from the free-throw line, maneuvered past the Stallions’ best player for a reverse layup, and assisted on full-court pressure that created two turnovers.
His final stat line: 21 points, six rebounds, four assists, three turnovers.
“You have a great point guard like that,” Stallions coach Jim Martin said, “you’re in every game.”
If you think Heath’s brain was buzzing Tuesday, imagine what it must be like in his home these days.
His dad, Stan, has USF in the proverbial lobby of the NCAA’s big dance. If Josh’s team can win Thursday morning against Weston Sagemont in the Class 3A state title game, it will give Fenlon his first state crown in 29 seasons at the downtown Tampa private school.
“I just know it’s in our hands,” Josh said.
Which is precisely where Fenlon wants it.
A two-year starting point guard, Josh arrived in Tampa while still a middle-schooler, sporting the fresh Afro in lieu of the braids he brandished while living in Arkansas.
“I just look weird without (the Afro),” he said. “That’s how I feel.”
He backed up older brother Jordan his freshman season at Tampa Prep before taking the reins the next year. He has flourished this season, (12.3 ppg, 7.0 assists) exuding poise and proficiency for a team (30-1) that has won 30 games for only the third time in school history.
The latter attribute was refined through hundreds of jump shots daily. This season, Josh is shooting 56 percent from the floor and 37 percent from 3-point range, which represent one-year improvements of 7 and 11 percent, respectively.
The unflappability and “really, really dry sense of humor” required no such honing, Fenlon said.
“He’s very cool, calm and collected, and you watch him play, you never know if you’re up or down,” Fenlon said. “(Teammates) see him calm and it calms them down.”
Thursday, if his modus operandi prevails, Josh will try to push the tempo in transition and pull back when the situation dictates. He’ll set his offense and set traps on the Terps’ press. No longer selfless to a fault, he’ll shoot if the shot is there.
And if his team prevails, this glacial guard may finally let his hair down.
“I can’t even imagine (the celebration),” he said.
Class 3A: Tampa Prep vs. Weston Sagemont
When/where: 10:05 a.m. Thursday. The Lakeland Center
Admission: $10 per session; parking is $7
TV: BHSN will air the finals
On the Web: We’ll be live blogging the game.
Know the foe: Read about Sagemont here.