The South Miami boys’ basketball team only returns three players from last season’s squad that fell in the state championship game, but for those who remember the 54-44 loss to Oviedo Hagerty, it still stings.
This year’s team, under the leadership of coach Robert Doctor and senior forward/center Joseph Lopez, returns to the state final four in Lakeland with redemption on its mind.
“They remember how at the end they were sad, especially Joey,” said Doctor, who played at South Miami in the 1990s. “He [Lopez] reminded the team that we have to come here and really play hard and do what we have to do to get this win.”
South Miami, after taking down Southridge, Coral Gables and Hollywood McArthur en route to Lakeland, is set to duel Orlando Evans in a Class 8A state semifinal on Friday at 8:30 p.m.
Never miss a local story.
Last season, Lopez was still getting his feet wet with the Cobras (20-4) coming off his transfer from Columbus onto a team with an amplitude of senior leadership, including center Antravious Simmons and point guard Jorge Perez-Laham, now at VCU and High Point University, respectively.
This time around, Lopez is the unquestioned leader, and the team looks to him when they need his experience most.
“After last year’s loss, we’re coming out here with everything we have, so that will never happen again,” he said. “I’m just trying to keep the team focused and prepare our team for battle [Friday].”
Lopez recalls how in the 2013 loss to Hagerty, the Cobras fell behind early, got back into the game, but then became stagnant offensively, lacking ball movement and shooting poorly.
He said this year’s team plays much faster and is always moving the ball, so a similar scenario is unlikely to happen when it matters most. A big reason for the offensive fluidity is guard Marquise Clark, who also transferred from Columbus, but a year after Lopez.
Clark has been on fire all postseason, averaging 25.3 points per game in the three regional wins that got the Cobras to the final four.
“I’ve been getting a lot of shots in,” said Clark, who Doctor likes to set up in pick-and-roll situations with Lopez. “The coaches always tell me to stay aggressive, keep looking to attack, make the right play. That’s what I’ve been doing the whole playoffs.
“Playing with Joseph Lopez makes things easier for me because he’s one of the best big men in Dade County and maybe the state. He opens everything up for me to drive the lane, be aggressive.”
Despite how smooth South Miami is offensively, its defense has been the biggest key to its return to Lakeland. Lopez anchors the defensive unit, timing his jumps perfectly to block shots and crash the boards.
“I take a lot of pride in my defense, and I make sure everyone else does because that’s the main reason why we’ve gotten so far this season,” he said.
The Cobras will need to be stout defensively against Evans (23-7), which is coached by former NBA point guard Chucky Atkins, an alumnus of the school. They will be focused on stopping guards Benly Olizia and Courtney Williamson and center Kerry Blackshear.
If they can get past Evans, the Cobras will play the winner of Winter Park-Greenacres John I. Leonard at 8:35 p.m. Saturday with a chance to get over the hump in the same game that crushed their title hopes a year ago.