Paul Atkinson left the court at The Lakeland Center with “a million times” better feeling than he did a year ago.
So did everyone associated with Westminster Academy boys’ basketball.
A year after coming up painfully short of winning a state title, the Lions finished the job with a 57-43 victory over Jacksonville Providence in the Class 4A state championship game.
“This is a million times better than last year,” Atkinson said. “We knew what we needed to do and we did it and I’m so proud of my team.”
Atkinson helped the Lions (29-4) dominate in the paint throughout the game and capture the school’s first state championship since 2002 and second overall.
The title came a year after Westminster Academy lost in the state final to Windermere Prep.
But their coach Ehren Wallhoff, whose goal since becoming Westminster Academy’s coach over a decade ago was to bring one back to his alma mater, never lost faith his team would earn a chance at redemption.
“Seeing the program grow, there were some lean years, but we worked at it and worked at it and this is the prize at the end of the tunnel,” Wallhoff said. “There were a lot of sacrifices by a lot of alumni and people that put in a lot of time so it’s amazing to win this one for everybody.”
Wallhoff played in a state tournament in the late 1990s, but never got the chance to celebrate the way he did on Friday.
Several minutes after his team had retreated to the locker room to continue the festivities, Walhoff walked off to the cheers of the school’s remaining fans that hadn’t left and waved two thumbs up.
“I wanted our fans and our kids to have this experience and we learned how to work and get better,” Walhoff said. “It’s a testament to how good these kids are.”
Atkinson finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds and helped Westminster out-rebounded Providence 43-28 as the Lions shot 52.4 percent from the field in the second half to pull away from the Stallions (25-6).
Jason Strong also helped inside with 10 points and nine rebounds.
Westminster’s guards also did a great job defending Providence’s shooters, limiting the Stallions to only 5 of 26 from three-point range.
Junior guard Zachary Scott led the backcourt effort on both ends of the floor and matched Providence guard and UAB signee Zachery Bryant for a game-high in points as each finished with 18.
The Lions kept Bryant from doing any consistent damage, however.
Westminster, which also beat Providence 62-60 early in the season, held the Stallions to only five points in the fourth quarter to seal the outcome.
“I think with two minutes left we responded and started making stops and I felt we could make it happen,” Atkinson said. “It came down to boxing out everybody and holding [Bryant] down.”
The Lions will lose some size next year with Atkinson leaving to Yale and Strong leaving to Northeastern.
But Westminster will likely build around its strong returning backcourt of Scott, freshman Dudley Blackwell and sophomore Chase Johnston.
“Paul has been amazing,” Walhoff said. “Overall it was a group of 15 that just bought in all year. They were destined for this.”
PRV (25-6): Marion 7, Bryant 18, Beane 4, Jordan 4, Perez 8, Archie 2. WA (29-4): Strong 10, Scott 18, Johnston 8, MacCluggage 2, Blackwell 2, P. Atkinson 17. Half: Tied at 23. Fouled out: Perez, Strong. Three-pointers: Bryant 2, Perez 2, Beane, Johnston. Rebounds: P. Atkinson 12. Assists: Bryant 4. Steals: Scott, Marion, Freeman 2. Blocks: Jordan, Strong 2.
STATE BOYS’ BASKETBALL FINALS
When: Through Saturday.
Where: The Lakeland Center, 701 W. Lime St., Lakeland.
Admission: $10 per day; Parking: $10.
Friday’s results – Class 8A semifinals: Tallahassee Lincoln 86, Palm Beach Lakes 60; Tampa Sickles 54, Bradenton Lakewood Ranch 49; Class 9A semifinals: Apopka Wekiva 73, South Miami 59; Kissimmee Osceola 52, Wellington 50; Class 4A final: Fort Lauderdale Westminster Academy 57, Jacksonville Providence 43.
Saturday’s schedule – Class 5A final: Fort Lauderdale Calvary Christian vs. Tampa Catholic, 10 a.m.; Class 6A final: Leesburg vs. Cape Coral Mariner, 12:30; Class 7A final: Fort Lauderdale Dillard vs. Orlando Edgewater, 3; Class 8A final: Lincoln vs. Sickles, 5:30; Class 9A final: Wekiva vs. Kissimmee Osceola, 8.