CLEARWATER — Looking back, Clearwater may have started off Friday’s region final a little too well.
Playing Naples for a spot in the Class 5A final four, a spot not reached since 2009, the top-seeded Tornadoes opened with four minutes of perfect basketball, a smothering defense that stoked a quick transition game. With senior Xavier Wahr and junior Nelson Taylor helping to force five Golden Eagle turnovers, which converted into fast-break buckets for senior Max Jones and sophomore C.J. Lee, Clearwater surged to a 14-0 lead.
But that style of play is what Naples thrives on, to the tune of a 74-points-per-game average, and the tide slowly turned. Powered by an under-the-radar performance from Brandon Hernandez and an over-the-top effort from junior Tony Green, the third-seeded Golden Eagles soared to an 84-78 victory.
Now with a 24-6 record after its second straight upset victory, Naples reaches its first final four in 29 seasons and will face Pembroke Pines Charter (ranked eighth overall in the state by MaxPreps) on Thursday in Lakeland.
“We just knew we have to take care of their press right off the bat,” Clearwater coach Kris Foote said. “I think we took care of it so good, we continued to play their style. It’s our style, too, but (Naples) plays a little out of control at times and takes quick shots no matter what. I think we should have … not slowed it down, but ran our offense a couple of times during that stretch and gotten a better cushion.”
“We have never lost hope this season,” said Golden Eagles alumnus and head coach Garrett Hull. “We have come back in games where we were down 25. This team plays to the end and I think once our nerves calmed, then we did a good job.”
Hernandez, 5-foot-10 senior who “does all of the little things it takes to win games” according to Hull, started the momentum change by controlling both backboards as he ripped down six of his 14 rebounds in the opening quarter, helping start a 9-0, two-minute run to quiet the capacity crowd.
Then the second eight minutes became Green’s playground. Dismantling the press of the Tornadoes (24-5), Green’s easy behind-the-back dribble layup tied the score, then a basket off a Hernandez feed gave the Eagles the lead four minutes later,
Green went off for 12 of his game-high 37 points (to go with 15 rebounds) to give the visitors a 35-33 halftime lead. Then he joined with junior Byntley Theork (23 points) to push the lead to nine (50-41) early in the third quarter.
Taylor (17 points) and Jones (team-high 34 points, seven rebounds, four steals, four blocks and four assists) willed the Tornadoes back up 55-54 with 1:33 left in the third but it would be the hosts' last lead of the night.
“Xavier (11 points) and Max have been through everything with me in their four years here,” Foote said. “They grew a lot, matured and succeeded. They are pillars of our program.”
Hoops from Green and Sherrod Lord pushed the gap to nine with 5:15 left, then 11 with 2:48 remaining.
Putting his teammates on his back for one last push, Jones hit a putback, two free throws and a 3-pointer to close within four, but with just 12 seconds left, time simply ran out on Clearwater.
“We don’t normally give up that many points and we didn’t shoot free throws very well (22 of 35 on the night), especially when we were in striking distance,” Foote said.
“The guys left it all out on there (Friday) and that makes you vulnerable for that successful feeling (if you win) or the other end. We fought hard, we gave it our all, and that’s all you can ask for as a coach. You’re never going to have speeches to heal these wounds, but in the future, when they walk through this gym and think of what they’ve done (as back-to-back district champs), it will heal up those wounds.”
State boys basketball
At RP Funding Center, Lakeland.
2A: No. 4 Bayshore Christian vs. No. 1 Orlando Christian Prep, noon Wednesday
4A: No. 4 Lake Highland Prep vs. No. 1 Tampa Catholic, noon Thursday
6A: No. 4 East Lake vs. No. 1 Bartow, 8 p.m. Thursday