By Dave Brousseau
LAKELAND – The Stranahan boys basketball team didn’t need 62 years to play for another state championship.
Just 365 days.
The Dragons in their bid to win back-to-back titles, defeated Paxon 59-54 in a Class 4A state semifinal at RP Funding Center on Thursday.
Stranahan (23-9) will play Tampa Catholic, 65-54 winner over Lake Highland Prep for the state title on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. The Dragons improved to 6-4 in games decided by five or fewer points this season, including the last three.
“Was excited to get this semifinal in and get back to the state championship,” said Stranahan coach Terrence Williams. “Defensively we’ve been working to make sure the guys have been locked in on their assignments.”
The victory also came without one the teams’ top players in Dave Herard. The team learned Monday he had torn his ACL in the Dragons regional final win over Gulliver Prep last Friday. He is scheduled for surgery next Thursday.
Up by 37-36 at the end of the third quarter, Stranahan mounted a 10-0 run to open the final quarter and provide enough cushion to earn the win.
The Dragons were solid on defense despite allowing 29 points from Eagles guard Isaiah Adams. He was the only Paxon (25-6) player over seven points.
“The key was keeping Adams in front of us and play solid defense,” said Williams. “We were willing to do that and eliminate the rest of the team. If we contained the rest of them and containing the amount of three’s they put up.”
Williams was mindful of Paxon’s ability to shoot the long ball, but that was kept in control as they made only 8 of 25 beyond the arch.
Stranahan provided a more balanced offense with Thaddeus Squire scoring 14, Chayse Culpepper 13 and Inady Legiste 12.
Now the Dragons look to repeat as a state champion.
Said Williams, “Repeating has been more difficult with the tough schedule. Last year we had point guard that ran, and we have that now with Chayse stepping in a doing a great job. Giving our opponents different looks has helped.”
Stranahan gained some momentum as the first half wound down when they outscored Paxon 9-2 to take a 25-21 lead at the break. The Dragons had trailed 19-16 prior to the run.
STRANAHAN 59, PAXON 54
S (23-9): Vickers 1-2-4, Squire 5-1-14, C. Culpepper 3-7-13, Legiste 5-2-12, Bynes 2-0-4, McCall 3-1-7, H. Culpepper 2-1-5.
P (25-6): Williams 2-1-5, Jackson 2-0-4, Adams 10-4-29, Caswell 3-0-7, Rivera 2-0-5, Johnson 1-1-4.
3-pointers: Squire 3, Adams 5, Caswell, Rivera, Johnson. Half: S 25-21.