ST. PETERSBURG — This was supposed to be a game dominated by Clearwater's big men, a game played above the rim.
That much Lakewood knew.
The Spartans do not have anyone taller than 6-foot-5 and were giving up at least 3-4 inches in height to the Tornadoes' two post players, Okaro White and Julien Sargent.
So Lakewood's game Thursday was based on speed and cunning. The game in the air was changed to a game on the floor. The Spartans swept up the leftovers dropped by the big men, taking the ball and zipping in another direction.
And when they had a shot from the outside, they took it. That helped Lakewood win 81-73 in the most anticipated regular-season matchup this year.
"We knew we didn't have the size, but we can shoot well," Spartans coach Dan Wright said. "Our ability to penetrate, kick it out and make the shot was real big for us."
The 3-point shot became Lakewood's little man equalizer. The Spartans made jumpers from both sides of the court, off the dribble and from behind screens, in heavy congestion and far from the maddening crowd.
Lakewood (16-2) hit 10 3-pointers, including seven in the first half. And when the Spartans missed shots, they had the speed to grab long rebounds.
"In the first quarter, I thought we were very tentative," Clearwater coach Allen Carden said. "We had some careless turnovers. Lakewood was a little more aggressive, getting after balls and shooting well from the outside, especially their guards."
The Spartans' Justin Minnis had the hot hand, knocking down four 3-pointers in the first half.
"Coach (Wright) said if it was there, to take the shot from the outside," Minnis said. "I was really feeling it early on. It was just one of those nights."
Lakewood jumped out to a 22-13 lead in the first quarter, then watched as the Tornadoes started feeding their inside guys.
Clearwater (16-3) eventually cut the deficit to 40-37 at the half.
In the third quarter, Lakewood started strong again, going on a 12-0 run to go ahead 52-37.
But the Tornadoes did not go away. Sargent provided the scoring punch and by the fourth quarter Clearwater took a 61-60 lead.
"I'm proud of the way we were able to fight back and get the lead," Carden said.
It didn't last.
The Spartans found their touch from the outside again and pulled away.
Minnis led all scorers with 38 points. Sargent had a team-high 26 for the Tornadoes.
"This was a huge win for us," Minnis said. "The game was the talk of the town for weeks and we had to show who was No. 1."