South Miami got a glimpse Thursday night of a formidable obstacle it may need to clear in order to return to Lakeland.
And thanks largely to a clutch effort by Zack Dawson, the Cobras passed the test with a 70-64 win over Palmetto and secured their first GMAC boys’ basketball championship since 2013.
The game had 22 lead changes until the Cobras took the lead for good with under three minutes left in the fourth quarter.
The teams could potentially meet again if both advance to the Class 9A regional playoffs.
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“Zack just took over and started playing tough, penetrating to the basket and hitting big shots,” South Miami coach Robert Doctor said. “Our guys played tough and it was a good thing to get a look at [Palmetto] because I have a feeling we’ll run into them again.”
Dawson, an Oklahoma State signee, dropped a game-high 31 points and scored 15 consecutive points during a pivotal stretch to end the third quarter in which South Miami (22-3) erased a four-point deficit with an 11-2 run.
Palmetto (17-8) continued to battle and took a 59-58 lead on a running one-handed shot in the paint by Josmel Martinez, who finished with 22 points to lead the Panthers.
A basket by Miguel Arnold, who finished with 18 points, and a great block in transition by Dawson, helped South Miami take the lead for good and hold off Palmetto down the stretch. Fellow Oklahoma State signee Latravian Glover played well inside also and finished with 11 points.
“This victory takes us a long way and gives us a lot of confidence,” Dawson said. “Knowing we could see Palmetto again, we know we have to play much better defense. We gave up too many points.”
Trailing 41-37 midway through the third quarter, Dawson took over the game with quick drives to the basket, which Palmetto could not stop. Within South Miami’s go-ahead run, Dawson outscored the Panthers 9-0 by himself at one point.
Dawson hit a pair of free throws with 20.1 seconds left to give the Cobras a four-point lead. South Miami then sealed the game with a well-timed inbound pass to Arnold, who found a clear path to the basket and scored the game’s final points.
PAL (17-8): Castellano 10, Hamburger 20, Rodriguez 2, Menendez 2, Starks 7, Martinez 22. SM (22-3): Dawson 31, Cerphy 2, Arnold 18, Ferguson 6, Wright 2, Glover 11. Half: Tied at 29. Three-pointers: Dawson, Castellano, Hamburger 3, Martinez 2.