LAKELAND — The first time Berkeley Prep played Lake Highland Prep, the Bucs did so without starters Marshall Holmes and Justin Gray, who missed all or part of the Jan. 4 Berkeley Invitational matchup — a game the Bucs lost by eight points — due to injuries.
So as the Bucs (27-4) prepared to take on the Highlanders (27-4) again in the Class 4A state semifinals Tuesday, Holmes admitted they thought there would be a reversal of outcome.
"We were like, 'We didn't play, so this should be a totally different game,' " Holmes said. "We came in a little over our heads thinking the game was going to come to us, thinking that they were just going to give it to us."
And for the first quarter, during which Lake Highland Prep shot just 23.5 percent from the floor, it appeared that's exactly what the Highlanders were going to do. But McDonald's All-American point guard Joel Berry quickly proved to be too much for the Bucs to handle, and the Highlanders worked through their shooting woes to beat Berkeley Prep 80-69.
In the first quarter, Berkeley Prep ran the floor with ease and Gray had nine points as the Bucs took a 19-11 lead into the second. An Antonio Johnson 3-pointer early in the second quarter gave Berkeley Prep a nine-point lead, its biggest of the game.
But the Bucs spent the rest of the half taking impatient shots, coach Bobby Reinhart said, and with the help of accurate free-throw shooting by Berry, the Highlanders took their first lead late in the second quarter, which was extended by a pair of Jay Henderson 3-pointers.
Berry, who finished with 39 points, would continue going to the stripe for the rest of the game. And the North Carolina commit delivered almost every time. Berry finished 19-of-24 from the free-throw line.
"Those are like free points," said Berry, who came into the game an 86 percent free-throw shooter, "so I took what I got."
Reinhart said the Bucs switched defenses throughout the game, hoping to shut down Berry. They tried to hedge the screens, Reinhart said, but Berry would either beat them to the corner or the Highlanders would look instead to Henderson, who sank three 3-pointers and finished with 15 points.
Lake Highland Prep led by 20 with seven minutes to play, but the Bucs went on a run of their own, capped by a Jacob Mathis 3-pointer, to cut the lead to 10 with just more than three minutes left on the clock.
By that time, though, Gray, who finished with 16 points, had fouled out. Mathis, who led the Bucs with 21 points, had picked up Gray's slack after he left the game with more than five minutes to go. But it wasn't enough, as the Highlanders kept the Bucs at bay with more sharp free-throw shooting in the final minutes.
The Bucs had come in with a strategy, but as their attention shifted to stopping Berry, they lacked an offensive rhythm of their own. And perhaps in the hardest way possible, they learned that even the best plans don't always pan out.
"We had a game plan, but like Mike Tyson said, 'Everyone has one 'til you get busted in the mouth,' " Reinhart said. "So credit to Joel Berry and Lake Highland."