RUSKIN — The magical run continues.
Lennard High’s boys basketball team, which before this season had never won a postseason game, is going to its first state tournament after beating Lehigh, 74-63, for the Class 6A-Region 3 title Saturday.
The Longhorns (25-5) will play Lake Minneola in the 6A state semifinals at The Lakeland Center on Friday.
Lennard, which also won its first district championship this season, defeated the No. 10 and No. 3 teams in 6A to advance to Saturday’s region final.
Moments after the win, Lennard senior guard Caelen Watts, who tied for a team-high 18 points, searched for words to describe the victory, knowing his program is only two wins away from a state title.
“It feels amazing right now,” he said. “I’m speechless. After all this hard work, it’s starting to pay off, and all the doubters, we’re proving them wrong.”
Playing against a similar opponent riding its own magical journey, Lehigh, which before this year had also never won a regional game, jumped out to a 6-0 lead in the first quarter and were 10 of 10 at the free throw line to lead 20-15 entering the second quarter. After trading shots in the second quarter, however, Lennard used a strong second-half start to own a double-digit lead the visiting Lightning could not close.
The Longhorns went on a 7-0 run in the opening minutes of the third quarter and outscored Lehigh (22-7) 18-10 in the quarter for a 10-point lead entering the fourth quarter.
“We’ve been battle tested,” Lennard coach Danny Gaddis said. “I said to them at halftime, it was reminiscent of Mitchell (in region quarterfinals). Everybody goes on a run and their run happened to be that first six points, so we’re used to it. We kept our composure, and it was one basket at a time.”
Senior forward Gary Hector scored 12 of his 18 points in the second half for Lennard, along with seven rebounds. Hector’s jumper with 5:01 left in the fourth quarter gave the Longhorns a 14-point lead, their largest lead.
“This has been in the making for four years so to finally be here, it feels awesome,” Hector said.
But it wasn’t just Watts and Hector. It was the sharp shooting of junior guard Darren Golden, who added 16 points, the defensive pressure of senior Robert Gant, who had four steals and a block, and the clutch free throw shooting of junior Diontae Johnson, who scored all of his 11 points at the charity stripe.
“We call it sweat equity,” Gaddis said. “All their doing is seeing the fruits of their labor.”
7A-2: Bartow ousts Freedom 69-54
TAMPA — In three short years, coach Cedric Smith has gotten Freedom to places it has never seen.
However, the Patriots (18-7), playing as underdogs in their first region final in program history, fell to powerhouse Bartow 69-54 on Saturday evening, marking the end of the team’s best season.
“We knew we were the lower-ranked team, the team that wasn’t supposed to be here, that surprised everyone, but they played their hearts out for 32 minutes and that’s all I could ask for,” said senior guard Michael Keller, who led Freedom with 21 points, including four 3-pointers. “We’ll be back. (Our) coach is a hall of famer and he’ll have them back to here, without a doubt.”
The Patriots faced the heavily favored Yellow Jackets (20-10) who were led by 6-foot-9 sophomore center Tony Bradley, who had a game-high 29 points, including 19 in the second half. Defending him and Bartow’s high-powered offense with players such as Deyontre Jordan (17 points) and Wofford commit Derrick Brooks (nine) proved to be difficult for the Patriots.
“That’s a really good team,” Smith said. “I thought we’d have to play perfect to get to them tonight. We had our mistakes early and late, but our guys never quit. I thought it would come down to our guard defense and how we’d handle their center play.”