LAKELAND -- Norland’s boys’ basketball teams have typically been recognized for their aggressive defensive style.
But Vikings coach Lawton Williams III has never been hesitant to adjust to his team’s strengths.
Norland’s ability to bring its signature defensive pressure and convert turnovers into instant, quick transition points helped it wear down Gainesville on Thursday afternoon at The Lakeland Center for a 73-50 victory in a Class 6A state semifinal.
It was another high-scoring output for a Norland squad that scored 70 or more points for the third consecutive game after reaching the mark only twice prior to that all season. The Vikings used a 22-0 second-half run to put away the Hurricanes (21-10) and outscored them 22-5 in the fourth quarter.
Norland (25-5) will play Pensacola Pine Forest (30-1) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the final. The Vikings will try to win their second consecutive championship and fourth in the past eight seasons. Norland improved to 7-0 all-time in state final four games.
“Each year I try to coach to our strengths and weaknesses,” Williams said. “This year, we’re a team that plays a lot better in transition. We had injuries, suspensions and different lineups throughout the season. The past three games we’ve been playing the way I envisioned from the start.”
Junior guard Zachary Johnson, who played at state as a freshman at Miramar, has been a huge part of Norland’s more potent scoring. Johnson finished with a game-high 19 points, five steals and six assists. Johnson scored 55 combined points in Norland’s regional playoff wins against Pembroke Pines Charter and Fort Myers, with the Vikings scoring 80 or more points in each game.
“In the second half, we just focused on getting more high-percentage shots,” Johnson said. “My freshman year [playing at state] was all new.
“This situation is different now with a team accustomed to coming up here year after year. I don’t add pressure to myself.”
Norland took the lead midway through the first quarter and didn’t trail again. Gainesville kept itself in the game with six three-pointers, including four by senior Michael McCray, who had a team-high 15 points.
But the Vikings wore down the Hurricanes with pressure defense that amassed 15 steals and caused 26 turnovers.
“It was jitters early because of some of our guys not playing in this atmosphere,” Williams said. “Whenever we’d try to pull away, we’d get a foul or we didn’t get a 50-50 ball.”
Junior center Tyrell Williams led the effort in the paint with a game-high eight rebounds and had 10 points. Jovany Deceus also had eight points in the paint and three steals.
“We had to get those 50-50 balls and stay active on the glass,” Tyrell Williams said.
Norland’s bench outscored Gainesville’s 35-12. Senior guard Shering Henry led the group, running the point effectively with eight points and three assists.
“My mind-set was to create opportunities for the team and do the little things like hustling and finding our teammates like Zach, giving him chances to score,” Henry said.
GHS (21-10): Turner 11, Bolen 2, McCray 15, Jackson 10, Farina 1, Oates 4, Smith 7. NOR (25-5): Huell 2, Williams 10, Mike 3, Johnson 19, Roberts 4, McKnight 5, Henry 8, Jean-Baptiste 3, Deceus 8, McCrea 9, McDaniel 2. Half: N 32-29. Three-pointers: McCray 4, Turner, Jackson, Mike, Jean-Baptiste. Rebounds: Williams 8. Assists: Johnson 6. Steals: Johnson 5. Blocks: Williams 4.