Basketball purists might want to look away when American Heritage takes The Lakeland Center floor for the Class 5A state boys’ basketball semifinals against Palatka on Friday morning.
If the Patriots’ headliners, 6-8 center Drake Lamont and 6-5 Kobe Eubanks sporting bright-colored socks bearing Homer Simpson’s likeness were not enough to make them wince, then Heritage’s excitable coach, Charles Stephenson, exhorting fill-in backup point guard Josh Borders to run fast breaks off made baskets will.
Sparked by an eclectic collection of personalities playing a free-wheeling, exciting and unconventional style of basketball, the Source Hoops No. 4 Patriots (22-6), have made an unlikely return to the Class 5A state final four.
“We certainly have a group that likes to have fun and play basketball,” Stephenson said. “I kind of give them room to be themselves. I don’t try to control them. I let them have fun. Drake got Kobe wearing those wacky Homer Simpson socks now. That is part of Drake’s nutty personality.”
As happy-go-lucky as this Heritage team might appear, it has shown incredible resolve in earning a state semifinal matchup Wednesday against No. 7 Palatka without standout point guard Keyshawn Evans.
Bad went to worse when Evans went down with a season-ending knee injury in the eighth game of the season, and the Patriots went on to lose four of five games during a midseason swoon.
But Borders took over full-time point-guard duties after the Kingdom of Sun Tournament, and the Patriots reentered the state title conversation with a 13-1 record since.
“There are a lot of people who wrote us off after Keyshawn went down,” Borders said. “Then we went through our bad stretch when we were dealing with a lot of egos. Losing made us look at each other deep down inside and take it upon ourselves to be better teammates.”
To offset the loss of the pass-first Evans, the Patriots have shifted to a motion offense. Eubanks (17.2 ppg) and Lamont (11.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg) have carried most of the offensive load. North Broward 6-4 twin transfers, Jason Massey (11.4 ppg) and Justin Massey (10.2 ppg) have provided toughness and length on the wings.
During its torrid 14-game stretch Heritage has speeded up the game to its liking and uses a suddenly spry Lamont, who bounced back from foot problems, in the post as a closer.
Unlike last season when Heritage came in somewhat wide-eyed in its final-four debut and lost 75-44 to eventual state champion Lake Wales, Eubanks said these mentally tougher Patriots team will be the aggressor this time around.
“It’s a different mind-set at states,” Eubanks said. “If we bring our ‘A’ game we should be good. Teams are not going to take us lightly. They are going to give us their best shot, and we’re going to give them our best, too.”