After a lengthy drought, Mainland's boys basketball team (24-5) hung on for a 35-34 victory over Lake City Columbia (20-10) to win the regional championship and advance to the Class 5A state final four.
It has been 25 years since the Buccaneers played in the state semifinals when they won their third state title in four years. They will meet St. Petersburg at 4 p.m. Thursday, March 2 at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
In 1994, 1995 and 1996, Mainland head coach Joe Giddens made it to the state semifinals with the Buccaneers as a player. Mainland won state championships in his junior and senior years, 1995 and 1996. They won another after he graduated in 1998.
“I went to the final four three years in a row as a player,” he said. “Now I get to go as a coach. That’s why I was so emotional. Hard work paid off, man. It’s tough, man. I’m so proud of my guys.”
Columbia started off strong in the first quarter, but Mainland guard Angelo Mack's basket brought the Bucs to within two at 12-10 in the second quarter, and the teams headed into halftime tied at 14-14.
We talked about adversity. I just told them to keep fighting — keep fighting. It’s not over until it’s over. When you believe in what we are doing, nothing can stop you. — JOE GIDDENS, Mainland head basketball coach
The Buccaneers ran over the Tigers in the third quarter with two back-to-back 3-pointers by DeAndre Newland and a combined effort by forward Narayan Thomas, guards Nathan Kirk, Mack and Clayton Cornett.
The Bucs led 29-18 heading into the fourth quarter when the Tigers went on a scoring spree of their own. Columbia shooting guard Isaac Broxey scored eight points, bringing the Tigers within 34-32 with 50 seconds remaining.
“We talked about adversity,” Giddens said. “I just told them to keep fighting — keep fighting. It’s not over until it’s over. When you believe in what we are doing, nothing can stop you.”
Columbia had possession with five seconds remaining. Jerel Moore guarded Broxey one-on-one as he drove to the basket and Mack went up to block the shot. Mack rebounded the miss at the buzzer.
“My mindset was defense, stay on top of everything and protect the perimeter, basically,” Moore said. “The whole season our coach always (has) been telling us 'next play.' If my teammate makes a mistake, I pick them up. If I make a mistake, they pick me up. We know we’ve got each other’s backs. There’s always (the) next play.”
Mainland point guard Moore started playing basketball in elementary school and played three years at Spruce Creek High School before transferring to Mainland in the beginning of the school year. From the first day he arrived, he felt nothing but “straight family vibes.”
“This is an experience I’ve been waiting for,” he said. “It means everything. It’s the world to me. It’s all I imagined.”