When the circumstances were at their lowest for Westminster Academy on Tuesday night, guard Jerald Butler soared the highest.
Butler’s emphatic put back dunk with 21 seconds gave the Lions a chance.
Paul Atkinson’s bank shot at the regulation buzzer sent the game to overtime.
And Zachary Scott’s eight points in overtime helped seal a dramatic 68-58 comeback win for the Lions over Orlando First Academy in a Class 3A state semifinal at The Lakeland Center.
Westminster Academy (23-6) will take on Windermere Prep on Thursday at 5 p.m. as it tries to win its second state title in school history and first since 2002.
“This has been a special year with this special bunch,” Westminster Academy coach Ehren Wallhoff said. “They’ve been the comeback kids the entire season and I never doubt them in any game.”
Trailing 52-48 with less than 30 seconds left, Westminster needed a quick score to have any chance.
Scott took a jump shot that bounced off the rim. Butler crashed boards, leaped, gripped the ball with one hand and slammed it home with 21 seconds left.
“That dunk lifted all of us because I know I was getting nervous,” Butler said. “I knew I had to do something, anything. The ball just landed in my hand perfect. That’s when we started believing we could win the game again.”
Atkinson, a 6-9 junior center, finished with a game-high 25 points and 12 rebounds, and held his own against First Academy (25-6) following a dismal start for Westminster Academy in which it fell behind 12-2.
The Lions’ defense gradually improved and took over after halftime.
First Academy, which shot 59.3 percent from the field (16 of 27) in the first half, shot only 16 percent combined in the second half and overtime.
“I admit when we stepped in at halftime down eight points and those guys had scored 40 points in the first half, I was a little shocked,” Wallhoff said. “We had come in really primed so to see our guys really step up that second half and stop them is a microcosm of how our season has gone.”
Butler’s high-flying jam was the highlight of a 21-point performance that also included seven rebounds and four assists. Freshman shooting guard Chase Johnston was battling illness according to Wallhoff, and had the Lions’ only other points with three.
Butler, a 6-5 junior, also did an impressive job guarding highly touted First Academy junior guard Chaundee Brown Jr., who finished with 23 points, but was held scoreless during the third quarter and had only four points in the fourth.
The Lions only outscored First Academy 11-5 in the quarter, but the shift in momentum was noticeable. And with 6:09 left in the fourth, Westminster had its first lead of the game.
Westminster opened the overtime period with a 6-0 run and never seemed threatened.
Scott, a sophomore, finished with 19 points and put the finishing touches on Westminster’s balanced attack.
“This was our best comeback the whole season,” Atkinson said. “It was a very physical game and it was hard to make shots. I wanted to win so bad and we’re so excited to be here. We needed to do everything we could to win this game.”
Wallhoff credited the team’s poise from a difficult schedule in which it played several close games with teams such as Sagemont, Miami Norland and Chaminade-Madonna.
“We played everybody we could play not only in South Florida but all around,” Wallhoff said. “Those games helped these kids believe even when we lost, we were never out of the game.”
WA (23-6): Atkinson 25, Scott 19, Johnston 3, Butler 21. TFA (25-6): William 10, DenBensten 2, Summers 7, Jordan 14, Brown Jr. 23, Baker 2. Half: TFA 40-32. Three-pointers: Butler, Jordan 3, William 2, Summers, Brown Jr. Rebounds: Atkinson 12. Assists: Jordan 4, Butler 4. Steals: Scott, William, DenBesten 2. Blocks: William 4.
If you go
What: The state boys’ basketball finals.
When: Through Saturday.
Where: The Lakeland Center, 701 West Lime St., Lakeland.
Admission: $10 per day; Parking: $10.
Tuesday’s results — Class 1A semifinals: Chipley 56, Jasper Hamilton County 53; Paxton 63, Bell 50; Class 2A semifinals: Bradenton Christian 61, Tallahassee FAMU 44; Boca Raton Grandview Prep 64, Orlando Christian Prep 52; Class 3A semifinals: Fort Lauderdale Westminster Academy 68, Orlando First Academy 58 (OT); Windermere Prep 80, Miami Archbishop Carroll 61.
Wednesday’s schedule — Class 4A semifinals: Miami Westminster Christian vs. Melbourne Holy Trinity, 1; Tampa Catholic vs. Jacksonville Bolles, 3; Class 1A final: Chipley vs. Paxton, 5; Class 2A final: Bradenton Christian vs. Grandview Prep, 8.
Thursday’s schedule — Class 5A semifinals: Tampa Jesuit vs. Jacksonville Bishop Kenny, 1; Kissimmee Poinciana vs. Zephyrhills, 3; Class 3A final: Westminster Academy vs. Windermere Prep, 5; Class 4A final: Westminster Christian-Holy Trinity winner vs. Bolles-Tampa Catholic winner, 8.
Friday’s schedule — Class 7A semifinals: Tallahassee Lincoln vs. St. Petersburg, 10 a.m.; Pompano Beach Blanche Ely vs. Melbourne, noon; Class 8A semifinals: South Miami vs. Sarasota Riverview, 2; Coral Springs vs. Winter Park, 4; Class 6A semifinals: Fort Lauderdale Dillard vs. Deltona, 6; Largo vs. Pensacola, 8.
Saturday’s schedule — Class 5A final: 11 a.m.; Class 6A final: 1:30; Class 7A final: 4; Class 8A final: 7.