It was clear who the most dangerous player on Palmetto’s basketball court was when Tim Hardaway Jr., was there.
Nowadays you won’t find a major Division-I recruit on the Panthers’ roster.
But you will see a cohesive group that in two seasons has put Palmetto back on a course toward state championship contention.
The Panthers gave another demonstration on Thursday night by winning what is believed to be the school’s first GMAC championship in boys’ basketball with a resounding 76-59 victory over South Miami at the Cobras’ gym.
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Palmetto (20-4), which lost twice to South Miami last year, led by as many as 19 points in the second half as collectively it took the Cobras out of the game in the second half with four players scoring in double figures.
Joey Martinez led the Panthers with 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.
Point guard Mikal Starks finished with 15 points and 10 assists and Jovan Debrito finished with 15 points.
Noah Lewis finished with 17 points, six rebounds and three blocks.
“As a confidence builder this win is great, but I think both of these teams expect to be in bigger places later on,” Palmetto coach Marcos Molina said. “We’ve talked about it all year, our goals and where we want to be.”
Palmetto advanced to the regional semifinals in 2010 when Hardaway was there, in 2013 and last season. But the Panthers have not been to state since 1980 — their lone appearance.
This year’s team could have the right mix to end the drought. Palmetto could end up facing South Miami — which has advanced to state four of the past five seasons — again in the regional semifinal round as it did last season.
“Now we know we can beat them,” Starks said. “Our confidence is through the roof and hopefully we can beat them again.”
Starks has been a huge catalyst for Palmetto combining his ability to run its offense with improved outside shooting.
In the second quarter Thursday night, the 5-11 senior point guard who has drawn interest from Florida Southwestern and Barry University, made five shots in a short span to Palmetto ahead for good.
“I was tired of people saying I had a broken jump shot,” Starks said. “I had to get in the gym and get to work. It’s paying off now and now people can see what I can do.”