Trying to allow his voice to be heard in a noisy locker room, South Miami coach Robert Doctor finally yelled at one point, “We’re not finished! We’ve got more business ahead!”
Doctor was busy celebrating with his players following the Cobras’ hard-fought, 70-60 victory over Hollywood McArthur in a boys’ Region 4-8A championship game in a packed, hostile and noisy standing-room-only McArthur gym on Saturday night.
And the business Doctor referred to was another trip to the state final four in Lakeland next week, where the Cobras will take on Orlando Evans in an 8A state semifinal on Friday. It was a year ago that South Miami made it all the way to the state title game, only to suffer a 10-point loss to Oviedo Hagerty.
“It feels great to be going back,” Doctor said. “Last year, I always thought we were going but this year was different. It was a tough battle all season long. I think the turning point for us was when we wound up as the No. 3 seed in our own district and didn’t even get to play in GMACs. I think we really picked it up from that point on. Now we need to see if we can bring the whole thing home.”
Doctor watched as his two big senior stars, center Joey Lopez and guard Marquise Clark enjoyed huge nights and were the primary reason the Cobras were able to come away victorious.
Lopez knocked down 21 points while pulling down a dozen boards, and Clark came up huge by leading all scorers with 32 points, 18 of which came at the free-throw line as he created penetration all night, getting to the foul line 24 times.
“McArthur is a very good team and we knew it would be a tough game going in,” Clark said. “Our game plan was for me to try and attack the basket, be aggressive. That they’ll foul me every time and that’s what I did and got to the line a lot.”
Lopez and Clark combined for most of South Miami’s offense in the first half, scoring 15 points apiece as the Cobras (20-4) led 35-31 at the half.
South Miami built a 48-39 lead but that’s when McArthur, playing in only its second regional final in the 56-year history of the school and first since 1967, put on a push. Led by Derric Jean, who finished with 28 points to lead his team, the Mustangs went on a 13-2 run to take a 52-50 lead early in the fourth quarter.
But the Cobras kept their poise, scored nine consecutive points to go up 59-52 and then made their free throws down the stretch to secure the win and second consecutive trip to Lakeland.
“I had so much energy built up in me [Saturday night],” said Lopez, a Winthrop commit. “After losing in the state championship game last year, that’s all I’ve wanted to do is get back up there and help take my team back to states. It was really intense [Saturday]. McArthur was tough and really brought it strong. But I told everyone that we had to stay focused, poised and concentrate and that’s what we did. All about the journey and we want to finish this year.”
“It was a hostile environment tonight for sure,” Doctor said. “We try and teach mental toughness from Day One to just remind the kids, this is what we’ve been teaching from the beginning of the year. The first half we kind of played their game, second half we settled down and played more of our game. We wanted to get stops and take our kind of shots. Not necessarily get into a run and gun with them and we did a better job of that in the second half.”
Zach Johnson led Norland in scoring with 19 points and seven assists, but it was the play of Dewan Huell and Tyrell Williams that was the difference. Williams played a magnificent defensive game with 11 blocked shots and eight rebounds. He also had eight points. Huell dominated the third quarter with an array of dunks, finishing with 15 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks.
Quite simply, Norland was too big for Pines Charter. These teams have met for three consecutive years in the playoffs. And for three consecutive years, the Vikings walked away the victors.
“You can’t prepare for our length in practice,” Norland coach Lawton Williams III said. “When you can’t simulate that length, it’s hard, it’s hard.”
Norland will now attempt to three-peat and win its fifth state championship in the past nine years. Every time the boys’ basketball team has advanced to Lakeland, it has captured the state championship.
Norland never trailed in this game as Darron Johnson drained a three from the corner to start the game and hit another one a couple of minutes later as Norland led 10-2 three minutes in. Pines Charter scored the next seven to make it 10-9, but Norland ran off six points in a row as the Vikings led 23-16 at the break.
The game finally went in overdrive in the third as Huell took over in the early parts of the quarter. He had four dunks and an alley-oop layup, but Pines Charter hung close behind seven points by Dimitri Harper.
“He’s a great player. He’s getting offered by Florida State, Miami, Louisville. He’s good and he’s skilled,” Williams III said about his prized sophomore Huell.
Then Zach Johnson put on a show. He scored on a three-point play, then followed with a fast-break dunk, then a layup off a steal and finally a corner jumper to end the quarter and give Norland a 44-32 lead going into the final quarter.
“We pressured them and got some steals and he can do what he does, make plays in the open court,” Williams III said of Johnson.
The lead ballooned to 48-32 after a 13-0 run for the Vikings. The Jaguars cut it back to 48-39 in large part because of Williams III’s first technical foul of the season following a questionable foul call. But the Vikings responded with the next five points to put it away and book their ticket to Lakeland.