Pompano Beach Blanche Ely’s basketball team dealt with defeat more this season than it has been accustomed to over the past decade.
The Tigers will experience a more familiar feeling Saturday.
On the strength of another signature disruptive defensive effort it has long been known for under coach Melvin Randall, Ely earned its way back to the Class 7A state championship game with a 62-59 win over Melbourne on Friday afternoon at The Lakeland Center.
The Tigers (19-13) advanced to their ninth state championship game all-time and will take on St. Petersburg (27-6), which is making its first appearance in the state final since 1952, at 4 p.m. Saturday.
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Ely will try to win its fifth state title since 2007 and fourth in the past five years.
“We’ve been fighting all year along and we’ve had a lot of naysayers thinking this a down year for Ely,” Randall said. “When you lose a total of eight players so of course people will say that, but we fought and these kids have stepped up to the challenge.”
Senior forward Trevor Goodrum Jr. led Ely with 21 points, six rebounds and four steals and made four huge free throws down the stretch as Melbourne (30-3) rallied and nearly forced overtime.
The narrow margin was partially because of the Tigers’ inability to make more free throws before Goodrum’s clutch conversions as Ely missed 7 of 12 over the prior two minutes, and shot 15 of 26 at the foul line overall.
“I think I just focused more than the two that I missed [earlier],” Goodrum said at the team’s postgame news conference. “I just focused more and told myself, ‘I have to make these.’ ”
After that statement, Randall turned and asked Goodrum: “You didn’t focus on your other ones? We’ll handle that later.”
Whether meant somewhat in jest or not, Randall was pleased with the Tigers’ defensive effort as Ely led from start to finish as they forced Melbourne into 29 turnovers.
“Our philosophy has stayed the same always, and that’s harass and play that defense baseline to baseline,” Randall said. “Until someone figures it out, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Senior guard Mark Houston finished with 13 points and sophomore center Michael Forrest had 12. Junior forward Nicholas Stampley had only three points, but made a huge impact in the paint with a game-high 13 rebounds.
Stampley also helped Ely limit the damage from Melbourne 6-7 senior forward Noah Horchler, who finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds.
Randall, a former USA Today National Coach of the Year, is seeking seventh state title and fifth at Blanche Ely. If the Tigers win it, Randall would have the most state titles of any coach in Florida history, surpassing the six won by his friend, Miami Norland coach Lawton Williams III.
Randall was quick to deflect any attention regarding the potential milestone that would culminate a season in which he watched his team struggle with inexperience early and injuries midway through the season that led to a four-game losing streak — a first for any of Randall’s teams in his 24 years of coaching.
“This won’t be all about me winning a seventh,” Randall said. “My concern is to put these kids in the proper position to win it. It’s about them. My concern is to help these kids win it and share that as a group.”
Ely (19-13): Taylor 5, Forrest 12, Houston 13, Goodrum, Jr. 21, Stampley 3, M. Smith 2, Maloney 6.
MEL (30-3): Horchler 14, Nesmith 12, Jackson 3, Riffee 5, Folsom 16, Chiles 3, Brown 6.
Half: Ely 30-23. Technical: Chiles. Fouled out: Chiles. Three-pointers: Goodrum, Jr. 3, Forrest 2, Houston 2, Brown 2, Chiles, Horchler. Rebounds: Stampley 13. Assists: Goodrum, Jr., Nesmith, Folsom 3. Steals: Goodrum, Jr. 4. Blocks: Horchler 2.