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Packers finally hurdle Spartans

5A

LARGO - The combination of the new millennium and Lakewood hasn't been kind to Largo coach Phil Price.

There was the 2000 region championship game. The 2001 district championship. The 2002 and 2005 Pinellas County Athletic Conference championship.

All Lakewood victories over the Packers.

Not that Price could remember any of those games Tuesday night, between all the hugs and well wishes from a satisfied home crowd after Largo finally turned the tide.

Behind 21 points from Nate Johnson, 17 from Mike Helm and the mistake-free performance of point guard Ben O'Donnell, the Packers advanced to the region championship with a 56-50 over the Spartans, last year's Class 4A champion.

"We knew we had a good team," said Johnson, "and we thought we were the better team this year."

Ranked No. 1 in the state, the Packers (26-2) won their 20th straight and will host Chamberlain Saturday for the right to go to state for the first time since 1998.

Their victory ends a streak of six straight region final appearances by the No. 4 Spartans, who finished 24-6.

Lakewood used a 9-0 run to end the first half with a 29-23 lead, but never found the same fire in the second half. It missed its first 11 shots of the third quarter, and Johnson gave Largo a 32-30 lead on a three-point play midway through the quarter.

Despite making just 2 of 16 shots in the third, Lakewood forged a tie heading into the final quarter and briefly took a 40-38 lead with 6:53 left.

But then Johnson took over, mostly by aggressively taking the ball to the basket. He made a free throw and missed a second, but Alex Gerhard came up with the rebound. The ball got back to Johnson, who drained a 3-pointer to give Largo the lead for good at 42-40.

Charlie Lytle hit a short baseline jumper, then Johnson converted another three-point play to make it 47-40 with 3:22 left.

"They were able to get inside the lane," Lakewood coach Dan Wright said. "We had to control the lane on both sides and we didn't do that."

Lakewood shot well enough to get back into the game and had a chance to tie it, but missed some critical jump shots and putbacks in the waning moments and Johnson made all four of his free throws to secure the win.

Johnson scored 18 in the second half, including 11 in the decisive fourth quarter.

"Outstanding. Outstanding," said O'Donnell, who handled the Lakewood pressure all night. "What Nate did tonight, that was ridiculous."

Bogie eliminated

TAMPA - Boca Ciega discovered Chamberlain is no Hillsborough County fluke, which the Pirates might have thought considering how Hillsborough has struggled in the playoffs. (Four of five Hillsborough County teams lost Tuesday night).

"No, sir," said Boca Ciega coach Randy Shuman, whose team fell 70-48 to the Chiefs. "They play like the 25-3 team that they are. "

Still, Shuman believed Boca Ciega (20-7) had a chance after the first half ended 33-32. Doubts, however, started creeping in at the end of the third quarter as the Chiefs opened a 51-43 lead.

"We started turning the ball over and they took advantage," Shuman said. "We shut down (Chiefs top scorer James Devlin, who had 19 points in the first half), but then the rest of (Chamberlain's) players stepped up."

Though Devlin failed to score in the second half, Chamberlain opened a 60-45 lead early in the fourth, almost exclusively on layups off crisp assists.

"When we pass the ball like we did tonight we can be a pretty good team," Chamberlain coach Doug Aplin said.

Three Chiefs - Devlin, Kylan Robinson (18 points) and Mo Lightburn (10) - scored in double figures with Robinson and Lightburn collecting all their points near the basket.

Shuman said Chamberlain's onslaught came so fast and furious it was almost out of control before his players knew what hit them.

"When a team scores 70 on us, then it's out of our league," Shuman said. "We need to keep the score in the 50s to have a chance. We can't get into a scoring match like that. It's just not our style."

Chamberlain moves on to play at Largo on Saturday night, a game Shuman, who has played Largo this season, believes the Chiefs can win.

"Oh, yes, (Chamberlain) is good enough," Shuman said.

- SCOTT PURKS, Times staff writer

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