TAMPA — Thank goodness for ninth-grade AAU basketball.
Using a little inside information recalled from once playing alongside T.J. Harvin, Sickles senior Marcus Cohen blocked the Bartow guard's bid for a game-winning 3-pointer at the horn, and the Gryphons earned a dramatic 41-39 Class 8A region semifinal victory Tuesday night.
Sickles (26-4) hosts Melbourne on Friday with a trip to the state semifinals at stake. The Gryphons had never beaten Bartow, which twice eliminated them from the playoffs, including the 2010 state final.
"We played together on Florida Elite. I know his game," said Cohen, who hawked Harvin in the fourth quarter after the senior had torched a Gryphons zone for five 3-pointers. "I knew he was going to pull up (for 3). Their big man (Travion Hodge) had fouled out so I knew they didn't want to go to overtime."
Both teams faltered from the free-throw line in the closing minutes, Sickles going 2-for-6, but Bartow also missed two chances to tie the score. Bartow's only field goal of the fourth quarter made it 40-38 with 18 seconds remaining, then Cohen missed a pair. But Bartow went 1-for-2 with nine seconds remaining. Sickles' Tahj Lalanne split his two with seven seconds left before the thrilling conclusion.
Harvin scored all but one of his 18 points in the middle periods as Bartow (19-10) took a 34-28 lead into the fourth. Sickles switched to man-to-man, Cohen camping out on the left-handed Harvin's go-to side and it worked: Bartow did not record a fourth-quarter point until 1:39 left in the game, with Sickles ahead 37-34.
"We haven't been down very often this year, so it was refreshing to see the way we reacted," said Sickles coach Renaldo Garcia. "Bartow is a great team and super-disciplined, so we had to be equally as disciplined."
That meant being patient on offense — not easy after Bartow led 20-8 — and getting the ball inside to 6-foot-7 junior Bryce Workman. After a first quarter that saw him miss two layups and Sickles trail 9-3, and a first half where the Gryphons were down 20-14 and Workman had just four points, he dominated in the second.
"They couldn't guard us. We just had to rebound," said Workman who led both in that category (10) and points (16).
A Workman three-point play to start the second half had Sickles closing in, and another layup cut the margin to 20-19 but Harvin answered with a 3 and teammate Timothy Jordan's longball got the margin back up to 26-20 with three minutes left in the third. But with Bartow's offense sputtering in the fourth, Sickles eventually took the lead on Workman's free throws with 4:04 remaining.
He also had a key block, as did Lalanne, and the duo closed out a patient, minute-long possession with Lalanne feeding Workman to make it 37-34 with 2:11 left.
"The message at halftime was to keep chopping away," Garcia said.
Lalanne scored eight points, his 3-pointer helping Sickles get the deficit manageable at halftime, and Denari Garrett had nine, including a clutch 15-footer that drew Sickles within 34-32 early in the fourth.
Still the Gryphons had to hold their breath at the end, but thanks to Cohen the green-clad fans in a buzzing Sickles gym were able to happily exhale.
"He likes to go to his left, and he's crafty," Cohen said of his Harvin. "But I knew I could get the block if I went straight up. I have long arms and about a 40-inch vertical. They did me justice."