LAKELAND — There was 1:20 remaining in the first quarter when Joey Rodriguez launched a 55-foot alley-oop pass to Chandler Parsons, who looked like a wide receiver on a fly pattern as he streaked behind the St. Petersburg Lakewood Spartans. The pass was spectacular but the dunk-finish with a foul that could have been called on any one of three defenders was the stuff memories are made of.
For all practical purposes, you could have called it a game at that moment. The only question remaining was the exact time the awards ceremony to hand out the state championship trophy would begin because it took the Lake Howell Silver Hawks less than seven minutes to totally demoralize a very good Lakewood team. Plays like the alley oop with the dunk finish are what will stick out in the minds of the fans at the Lakeland Center, but the real secret to Lake Howell’s success was its half-court zone trap that set the high-flying aerial circus of an offense in motion.
When Parsons plunked in the free throw for the three-point play the old-fashioned way, the look on the faces of the Lakewood team was a familiar one for the Silver Hawks, who finished out a 29-3 season with the Class 5A state championship Friday night. Their three losses were all to highly regarded out of state teams. Of their 29 Florida victims, Tampa Wharton came the closest (11 points). Lake Howell won its semifinal game with Fort Lauderdale Dillard by 26 before disposing of Lakewood, 85-42, Friday night in a game that was only that close because the clock ran continually in the fourth quarter.
When those final seconds mercifully ticked off in the fourth quarter, it brought an end to two nightmares. The first belonged to Lakewood, which was blitzed into submission by Lake Howell’s trapping defense and take it to the rack fast break. The second nightmare lasted three years and it belonged to Lake Howell, the state runner-up in 2004 and semifinalist in 2005 and 2006.
“We stunk it up the last three years,” said Parsons, a wiry 6-9 forward who has signed with the Florida Gators. “I’m just happy we finally played a game in this place like I know we can play. The last three years this place has had a lot of bad memories.”
Parsons did his part to give Lakewood a few bad memories. In addition to the dunk finish, Parsons knocked down a pair of NBA range three-pointers in the first quarter as Lake Howell raced out to a 27-11 lead. He finished the night with 22 points on 9-14 shooting including a perfect 3-3 from the three-point line. He also had seven rebounds, one assist, one steal and two blocked shots. His greatest contribution, however, might have been as the point man on Lake Howell’s half-court trap. Parsons continually forced Lakewood’s 5-8 point guard Reginald Reed to dribble to his right where the 6-6 Calathes was waiting. Parsons would close from behind and when Reed tried to split the trap and pass, Rodriguez played like a free safety. Lake Howell forced 17 costly turnovers, most of them out of the half-court trap.
The Silver Hawks stretched their lead to 45-23 at the half and they finished the third quarter on a 15-0 rampage that made it 69-34.
When Parsons wasn’t bombing away or finishing around the rim, Nick Calathes was blowing by defenders and getting to the rim. Calathes finished the night with 23 points, eight from the foul line in 11 tries as he kept drawing contact in the paint once he blew by his defender on the dribble. Calathes, a McDonald’s All-American and the reigning Florida Mr. Basketball, had five rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Calathes played sick in last year’s semifinal loss to eventual state champion Gainesville Eastside, so there was a feeling of redemption for the 6-6 Florida-bound guard.
“I don’t know if there are words that can come close to what I’m feeling right now,” said Calathes, who will also be playing in the Michael Jordan All-American Game in Madison Square Garden with Parsons. “All I can say is after the last three years this is definitely the way to go out.”
That Final Four monkey on Calathes’ back felt like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla when the season began, but getting the championship in his last game in a Lake Howell uniform put all the bad memories to rest.
“Now I’m ready to move on to Florida,” he said. “Getting this championship was really important to me and to our team. Now I’m ready to move on to Florida and see if I can help the Gators win some more championships.”
The triggerman for Lake Howell’s run them till their legs give out fast break is Rodriguez, who will spend the next four years playing for former Gator assistant Anthony Grant at VCU. Rodriguez delivered 11 laser-guided passes to teammates for assists in addition to his 16-point effort that included 2-3 from the three-point stripe. Rodriguez didn’t turn the ball over once.
Rodriguez said Lake Howell’s success was all about the chemistry.
“The three of us have been playing together since we were like 10 years old,” said Rodriguez. “Counting AAU we’ve played probably six or seven hundred games together. When we’re all on the same page like we were tonight, I think it’s hard to stop us because we just know how to find each other. I’m gonna miss playing with Nick and Chandler.”
Lake Howell Coach Steve Kohn, who got his first state championship after 32 years of coaching, found the words hard to come by. He was happier to stand aside and watch the kids celebrate a championship.
“What a group of kids,” he said. “The great thing about them is they had the focus at the beginning of the year and they never once lost it. They had a goal and they kept focused on their goal and didn’t let anything distract them. I think that’s one of the things that makes this so special.”
Kohn wasn’t the least bit surprised that Calathes, Parsons and Rodriguez tied for the Most Valuable Player Award, the first time ever that three players from the same team shared the award.
“Knowing them, I’m sure it makes it better that they share it,” said Kohn. “All season long, they’ve gotten the job done for us and they really did it tonight. They deserved to share it.
“I believe all three of them are going to do well at the next level. I think they’ve got the talent and desire to succeed and all three of them are hard workers and just the nicest kids you would ever want to meet. They’re all about the team so they’ll fit in well and do their part to help their teams win. We’ve been really fortunate to have these kids together all this time. It might be a long time before we see another group like this.”
GAME NOTES: Florida Coach Billy Donovan was at the game to watch Parsons and Calathes play … Parsons and Calathes will be in Gainesville along with recruits Adam Allen and Alex Tyus for Sunday’s game with Kentucky at the O-Dome. Patrick Patterson, the biggest name among unsigned recruits in the nation, will be at the game along with Howard Thompkins of Oak Hill Academy, one of the biggest names in the recruiting class of 2008 … Donovan’s son, Billy, a ninth-grader at St. Francis Catholic in Gainesville, finished fourth in the Class 1A Three-Point Shootout … Calathes played on a national championship AAU team years ago with Florida point guard Taurean Green … Lake Howell shot 62.3 percent for the game while holding Lakewood to 31 percent. The Silver Hawks were 8-14 on three-pointers while holding Lakewood to 2-18.