LAKELAND — Sickles junior Rashawn Rembert stood Thursday night in the bowels of the Lakeland Center, a silver medallion dangling from his neck, and recalled a statement he made some time the previous autumn.
"Me and (senior point guard) Jordan (Davis), as soon as the season started we said we were going to put the team on our back and we were going to take it to the promised land," Rembert said.
Immediately, their coach cringed, and skeptics cackled. Surely, many presumed, this was teenage bravado. A team that had lost four starters including 6-foot-10 North Carolina signee John Henson would never see mid-February, much less March.
But there was Rembert on Thursday, getting the last word.
He would've preferred a last laugh.
An insurmountable third-quarter offensive surge by Bartow propelled the Yellow Jackets to a 53-41 triumph over the Gryphons in the Class 5A state final before an estimated 3,400 at the Lakeland Center. Sickles finished 29-3, transitioning from for-real to surreal in the process.
"This has been a phenomenal year," Gryphons ninth-year coach Renaldo Garcia said.
"I've said all along that these kids exceeded my expectations weeks ago. And to see them come out tonight and give it their all … Eventually as the game went on you could just tell we were kind of outmanned, but they kept fighting."
Trailing by only two at halftime, the Gryphons watched Bartow score the first 13 points of the third period to essentially seal things. Spearheading the run was senior point guard Jeremiah Samarrippas (20 points), a teammate of Davis' on the Florida Elite summer squad.
Samarrippas, whose team went 2-for-14 from the floor in the first period, started penetrating and scored the second half's first six points on an array of runners and off-balance layups. By the time he scored another layup on a Richard Murvin feed, Bartow had a 37-22 lead.
"I think we stopped settling for jump shots and started going to the basket more," Samarrippas said.
"They hit shots, they converted on our misses, they beat us to a couple of loose balls, and that was the game right there," added Davis, who led Sickles with 13 points.
Periodically overwhelmed by Bartow's full-court pressure, the Gryphons — who committed 17 turnovers — never came within seven points the rest of the way.
Senior Caleb Kamm and Davis nailed consecutive 3-pointers to end the run and cut Bartow's lead to 39-28. Then, with 4:44 to go, a traditional three-point play by Rembert (nine points, seven rebounds) cut the Gryphons' deficit to 42-35. But Murvin responded with back-to-back drives to the hole. From there, Bartow converted 7 of 9 free throws over the last 2:03.
"It hurts right now, but there will be great stories to tell," said Davis, who reaffirmed his commitment to Monmouth University afterward. "Just to know that we got to this point when we weren't even projected as the best team in our county, just to know that we got here is great."