TAMPA — Draining 3-pointers that gave Hillsborough a hot start against Class 7A region final opponent Daytona Beach Mainland, Myles Cowart and Tyriq James set the tone in what was perhaps the Terriers’ biggest boys basketball game in more than two decades.
But from the bench down the stretch, senior Kenric Montgomery brought it home.
The third-generation Terrier’s big 3-pointer in the third quarter gave his team a lead it would never again relinquish, and as the final minutes ticked off the clock, his imposing presence made an impact defensively, as Hillsborough beat Mainland 53-49.
The Terriers will compete in the state final four for the first time since 1996, looking for the program’s fourth state championship and first since 1959.
His Terriers (26-5) had watched so much film, James said, that when they took the court Friday evening, it didn’t take them long to jump ahead. James hit a pair of 3-pointers, and Cowart hit one more to help Hillsborough begin with an 11-0 run, keeping the Buccaneers off the board until the 3:28 mark of the first quarter.
Coach Chris Ward, though, refused to let it get to his players’ heads.
"We know basketball is about runs. We know other teams are going to get rhythms, they’re going to get hot," Ward said. "When they called that first timeout, I told them, ‘It’s 8-0. 11-0. So what?’?"
And just like Ward predicted, Mainland (21-9) crept their way back in.
The Buccaneers outscored Hillsborough 17-8 in the second quarter, despite a pair of 3-pointers from Montgomery, and turnovers started getting the best of the Terriers. Mainland went into the halftime break up by a point, and when play resumed, the lead traded hands throughout the third quarter.
With just less than two minutes to play before the fourth, Montgomery hit his third 3-pointer of the night. From there, the momentum began to shift. Montgomery did everything he could, he said, to keep it that way.
"He’s a senior. He wanted states," James said. "So he left it all on the floor."
With Hillsborough leading by just three as the fourth quarter clock waned, a Buccaneer took off on a fast break, only to find Montgomery at the other end, who made a leaping block that echoed throughout the gymnasium.
"If he was to make that shot, they were going to get the momentum, and they would probably take the lead," said Montgomery, who finished with 11 points. "So I just had to defend it and not foul him."
Despite a rough start from the free throw line, the Terriers made them when it counted, sinking nine of 10 in the fourth quarter to help secure the victory.
Afterwards, Montgomery, who signed to play football at the University of Maryland less than a month ago, stood on a ladder under the basket, helping cut down the nets as his father watched from the outskirts of the crowd. The last time Hillsborough went to the final four, Kenric Montgomery Sr. was a junior on the squad.
That year, the Terriers fell to South Miami 84-81 in the state semifinal. But this time around, the younger Montgomery is confident the outcome can be different.
"Everyone’s got to believe in themselves, believe in the system, believe in each other," Montgomery said, the net hanging from his neck. "Then everything will be good."