Saturday, January 20, 2018

Region boys basketball: Lennard reaches first state final four

RUSKIN — If Saturday night's Class 6A region final between Lehigh and his Lennard team was truly like a boxing match, as coach Danny Gaddis said, then ding, ding, ding.

It's the Longhorns by TKO.

In front of a packed house in their own gymnasium, Lennard outworked and outplayed Lehigh in a decisive 74-63 win, sending the program to its first state semifinal.

After a slow start, Gaddis reminded his upstart veteran club to just do what it always does: throw lots of punches.

"Very simple: All we do is no different than the Mitchell game, or the other games. All we got to do is counterpunch," he said. "Just do what we've been doing all year."

The Longhorns (25-4) won their 10th straight game, and 15th in their last 16, with slick guard play from Caelen Watts, an inspired second half from Gary Hector and clutch 3-point shooting from Darren Girod.

"It's amazing," said Watts, who led Lennard with 18 points.

Early on, Lehigh (22-7) made it look like it might be too fast and too big for the smaller Longhorns.

"We just had to take their best punch," Hector said.

That punch came from Bowling Green signee and Lehigh point guard Bernard Edwards Jr., who led all scorers with 27 points and was a handful early on.

But Hector came to life in the third quarter, scoring three baskets inside as Lennard turned a 35-32 halftime lead into something insurmountable.

Hector sandwiched two of his baskets around Girod's third 3-pointer to key a 7-0 start to the third quarter, pushing Lennard ahead 42-32.

Lehigh never got close than six the rest of the way.

When Lehigh scored, Lennard answered. The Lightning pulled within 59-51 midway through the fourth quarter, but Girod hit a shot and added a free throw. When Lehigh retaliated with a long 3-pointer, Trey Jones made two free throws and Hector scored again.

Hector scored only four points and missed all four of his free throws in the first half, but scored 12 in the second half.

Girod finished with 16 as well.

"The thing is, we thought we would do this last year and the year before that," Gaddis said. "Those were the expectations. This finally came with maturity. It was just a matter of time for us."

7A: Freedom undone by Bartow quickness

TAMPA — Michael Keller wrapped a red T-shirt around his head and began to cry as the final buzzer sounded in Freedom's 69-54 loss to Bartow in a Class 7A region final Saturday.

His face red with tears, Keller trudged toward the long line of smiling Bartow players and coaches, who were eagerly waiting to shake hands and celebrate their second straight trip to the state final four.

But before he could take a step, Patriots coach Cedric Smith reached out and wrapped the senior into his arms for a hug.

"This is my family. I love them like brothers," said Keller, who finished with a team-high 18 points, including three 3-pointers. "I would do anything for any of them. And that coach in there, he's a Hall of Famer, man."

For three years, Smith had worked to rebuild Freedom (18-7), leading the Patriots from just eight wins in 2011-12 to the Class 7A District 8 championship this season.

Still, Smith said, he knew going in it would be a challenge to keep up with the Yellow Jackets' athleticism.

"That is a really good team. I thought that we would have to play an almost-perfect game to be able to win," he said. "(Bartow coach Terrence McGriff) has been doing this a long time. He's been here before. This was our first taste."

Bartow (20-10) showed its experience and jumped on Freedom right from the start. The Yellow Jackets opened the first quarter 6-for-6 from the field for a 13-2 run just four minutes in.

But after a timeout by Smith, seniors Malik Robinson (six points) and Riley Blake (five) helped the Patriots regroup for a 9-0 run that cut the deficit to four points.

That's as close as it would get the rest of the night.

Led by 6-foot-9 sophomore Tony Bradley (27 points, three blocks), the Yellow Jackets built a 12-point advantage at the half and pulled away to take a 21-point lead in the third, their largest of the night.

From there, Bartow cruised, hitting 8 of 11 free throws down the stretch.

"We bought into this from Day 1 and look at us now," Keller said. "We made it to the regional finals. No one expected us to be here; we were underdogs. But we made it and I'm happy."

Jeff Odom, Times correspondent

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