Lakewood High penned another chapter in its improbable success story.Down 75-68 with 62 seconds left, the Spartans stunned Clearwater with a 77-75 victory in the Pinellas County Conference championship game Friday night.
Lakewood (26-4), which faced preseason predictions of mediocrity, won its first-ever conference title. Clearwater (21-8) dropped its second championship game in two years.
Free throws, rather the inability to make them, did Clearwater in.
The Tornadoes finished with a 19-for-37 performance at the line, including four straight misses in the final minute.
Clearwater had the ball with a 75-68 lead but double-dribbled it away. The Spartans' James Blair then drove in for a lay-up.
Down to 59 seconds remaining, Lakewood planned to foul. It worked.
Four times, Clearwater faced one-and-one free-throw situations and - four times - the Tornadoes missed the first shot.
After the first three misses, Lakewood rebounded and scored quickly. Trevor Mallory put in an offensive rebound for a 76-75 Lakewood lead with 20 seconds left. "They got tired and they couldn't stick with us," said Mallory, who scored 19 points, second to teammate Louis Rowe's 21.
With 15 seconds left, Clearwater's Sean Pell was fouled.
"We'll make these two, then rebound and we're tops in the county," Clearwater coach Rudy Coffin told his players during a timeout.
But Pell missed and Pat Bannister rebounded. Mallory was fouled, made 1-of-2 free throws and Clearwater had the ball back, behind 77-75 with eight seconds left.
James Daugherty drove for a lay-up, but the whistle blew.
Clearwater forward Marvin Jackson was called for pushing underneath.
Lakewood had the ball, and the championship.
The close finish capped a see-saw game where Lakewood took a 12-point lead in the second quarter, but trailed by 13 in the third quarter. Clearwater held the advantage until the final minute.
"We didn't make the free throws. You got to make them if you're going to be the champion," Coffin said.
Lakewood's Dan Wright, in his 13th year as head coach, gripped the
conference trophy. "This feels great. Lakewood has been so close through the years."