Just how deep and talented the University boys’ basketball team is came into clear focus late Thursday afternoon.
Looking to repeat as state champions and having to do it once again without five-star Duke commit Vernon Carey Jr., who sat on the sidelines with his lower right leg in a walking boot, the Sharks, in a 24-hour period, fielded the best of what Class 5A could throw at them and never flinched.
One day after blowing out The Villages Charter in a semifinal, University did the same thing on Thursday, controlling the game from the opening tip and finishing off a 72-46 rout of Jacksonville Andrew Jackson in the 5A state title game at the RP Funding Center for a second straight 5A championship.
Unlike the semifinal win — in which they leaned on 22 points, eight rebounds, and five assists from Scottie Barnes, the No. 4 overall prospect in the 247Sports.com composite rankings for the Class of 2020 — the Sharks’ supporting cast played a bigger role on Thursday.
Make no mistake, Barnes was still dominant, patrolling the paint like a good watchdog and altering shots while finishing with 13 points and half a dozen boards.
But coach Jim Carr also got balanced performances other players, led by Jace Howard. With father and Miami Heat assistant coach Juwan Howard sitting behind the bench, Howard led the way for University with 17 points and six rebounds.
Roger McFarlane, a three-star shooting guard in the 2020 class, also added another 13 points and five rebounds. Jace’s younger brother, freshman Jett Howard, also contributed with eight points and three rebounds.
“We’re a lot more than Vernon Carey and we’re a lot more than Scott Barnes,” Carr said. “Our slogan all season has been ‘Stronger together’ and together our sum is huge and we have exceptional parts. Don’t get me wrong, Vernon’s a generational player, we hope to have him back if we have the opportunity to play more basketball this year, but we’ve been really deep all year, so that really helped us this week.”
Said Jace Howard, who shared an emotional, 30-second embrace with his father on the court following the game: “I felt like my teammates did a great job of putting me in the best situation to succeed today. At the beginning of the game Scotty told me to stay confident and to be ready to shoot. I felt like that was a big jolt for my confidence and coach Carr believed in me and turned me back into the starting lineup so I was just glad I was able to contribute.”
The Sharks, who finished 27-4 and are ranked No. 12 in the nation in MaxPreps’ Xcellent 25, settled the issue fairly early.
Leading 17-10 after the first quarter, University held Andrew Jackson (25-7) scoreless for the first 5:15 of the second quarter while scoring 10 points to open up a 27-10 lead.
“We didn’t play our best today, but [University] had a lot to do with that,” Jackson coach James Collins said. “I thought once we fell way behind in the second quarter, we were in big trouble. Hats off to them, they’re a great team.”
Up 35-21 at halftime, the Sharks went on a 14-2 tear to open up the second half to go up 49-23 and that was that.
“I think we tell our guys all the time to be confident in every game and I feel like everybody was really confident today and these past two games,” Barnes said. “So I know that they can produce on the court and it’s not just all about me and Vern.”
Carey suffered a severely sprained ankle in University’s 39-36 regional-final win at Westminster Christian. last week. Carr inferred at his press conference following the team’s semifinal win that their might be a slim chance that Carey could be ready for Thursday’s title game, but Carey confirmed after the game that that was never happening.
“It was tough not being able to contribute but I knew I just had to be there for my team and show my support any way I could so that’s what I did,” Carey said. “I knew I was never going to play, I think coach was just kind of trying to maybe throw a little something out there for the opponent to think about. My plan is to try and be ready for the McDonald’s All Star Game [on March 27].”