LAKELAND -- Plantation American Heritage winning its first boys’ basketball state title on Saturday at The Lakeland Center seems all but academic at this point.
The greatest motivator, should the Patriots hold up their end as the favorites and beat St. Petersburg Lakewood (14-12), will be the embarassment of coming up short in three consecutive final four appearances.
Heritage put itself in position to shed the tag of “can’t win the big one” by beating Panama City Rutherford 74-47 in the Class 5A state semifinals Friday.
American Heritage third-year coach Charles Stephenson, who has borne his own share of criticism with Heritage’s 0-2 record in the final four, said nothing but hoisting the state title trophy will suffice in his nine seniors’ last hurrah.
“Our kids understand the mission; they have understood that from Day One that this is going to be their legacy,” Stephenson said. “Their legacy can’t be 0-3. They are too good and played together too long and they have played basketball too long. You just can’t go out and let your legacy be 0-3. You just can’t. And that has been their mind-set.”
Justin Massey had 16 points, six assists and three steals for the Patriots. Justin’s twin brother, Jason, added 16 points, 6-10 Western Michigan signee Drake Lamont had 13 points and 11 rebounds, and Hunter Osceola added seven points.
In the waning minutes, with Heritage’s starters long returned to the bench for good, it was time for the Patriots’ bench to shine.
Promising sophomore guard Brandon Johnson then delivered a thunderous breakaway dunk to push the lead to 69-38 before Brock Stephenson, the coach’s son, swished a three-pointer to send the Patriots’ fans, coaches and Patriots starters into a frenzy.
In truth, the outcome was never in doubt after the Patriots built a 17-7 lead at the end of the first quarter. Lamont scored the Patriots’ first eight points, newcomer Osceola drained a three-pointer and Jason Massey threw down a two-handed dunk for a Patriots team on a mission.
A talented and extremely well-coached Rams (27-3) team kept fighting, but ultimately got overwhelmed by a long, aggressive and athletic Heritage defense that appeared to have six players on the court at times.
Heritage held the Rams to 8 of 27 shooting and forced nine turnovers in the first half to open a 32-21 halftime lead that would been much larger had the Rams not had a 18-10 rebounding edge, including 11-0 on the offensive end.
Heritage then unleashed one of its patented fast-break surges in the third quarter to erase any hope of a Rams’ comeback and cruised into the final.
Justin Massey started his nine-point, third-quarter scoring binge with a tough layup while being fouled by Keith Arts, Jason followed with a layup while also being fouled before Lamont went “old school” with a patented left-handed hook shot to beat the third-quarter buzzer and push the lead to 54-31.
The biggest difference in this team than the past two that made the trip to Lakeland with 6-5 wing Kobe Eubanks, a top-100 recruit, is the chip on its shoulder.
Whatever late-game shot-making the Patriots lost with Eubanks’ departure, they have more than made up for with the return of its dynamic point guard Keyshawn Evans from injury and the transfer of Osceola, a prolific scorer who has sacrificed individual numbers for the good of a state title.
“This year, we started thinking that we have to work harder and have to show that we need to be here and that we should be here,” Jason Massey said. “It is really a different mind-set. Even though we lost some players, we gained Hunter and we know that the people sitting here can do what we really should do.”
Ruth (27-3): Wade 9, G. Steele 4, Moore 2, Spearman 5, Arts 8, Dunton 5, M. Steele 7,Turner 2. AH (24-7): Evans 4, Justin Massey 16, Jason Massey 16, Osceola 7, Lamont 13, Stephenson 3, Johnson 2, Borders 5, Hurge 2. Half: AH 32-21. Three-pointers: Wade 1, Dunton 1, M. Steele 1, Justin Massey 1, Osceola 1, Lamont 1, Stephenson 1. Rebounds: Lamont 11. Steals: Justin Massey 3, Osceola 3. Assists: Justin Massey 6, Osceola 4.