TAMPA — In one day, it all changed for the King boys basketball team. The Lions went from undefeated to winless, from beating opponents by 39 points a game to facing an upward climb back into the district race.
Four games into the season, the Lions lost their senior point guard when Eric Diggs was ruled ineligible. At the time, he was King's second-leading scorer and top playmaker. And they had to forfeit all their wins.
"I was devastated," senior Adrian Federick said. "The whole team was devastated."
Coach Sam Lanier didn't know how to approach his team with the news. The Lions had 11 more games in one of the county's most competitive districts. So he told them one thing: You've got to run the table in the district. And they did.
"I only said that to them because I thought they could do it," Lanier said.
Tonight, the Lions (23-6) face top-ranked Gainesville in their first Class 5A state semifinal in program history at the Lakeland Center. Before this season, King had never advanced out of the first round of the region tournament.
It rallied past early-season adversity. But that's nothing new to this program.
In Lanier's first game as King coach in 2003, he was blown out by 38 points. He won just five games that year, four the next and four the year after that. Then, an athletic sophomore named Toarlyn Fitzpatrick landed on his doorstep.
Last year, the Lions turned the corner with 15 wins. But this season it all came together. A pair of pesky perimeter defenders in Federick and Rethell Oliver. Add four players 6-foot-4 or taller to man the interior — highlighted by the 6-foot-7 Fitzpatrick, who this season accepted a dip in his scoring to add to his rebounds and assists. And Diggs' successor, sophomore Chauncey Day, grew into his role.
"We had to improve," senior forward Andrew Donaldson said. "We had to get tougher and get over the loss of a teammate."
As for Diggs, whose appeal to the FHSAA was denied in January (it upheld that his four-year eligibility clock had expired), will be in the stands tonight, Lanier said. Diggs can't practice, but he is there for team meals. Before the team beat Bloomingdale in the district semifinals, players added his name to the back of the team T-shirts with Sharpies.
"He's still a member of the team in our eyes," Donaldson said. "No matter what."
Now they've won 21 straight, and the Lions are two wins from a state title, still together.
"I didn't think it would be like this," Federick said. "We just had to hold our heads up high."