By: Dustin Kent - JCFloridan.com
For the first time since 2009, the Chipola Indians are state champions.
After winning their last three games to get into the postseason – including a win over Northwest Florida State on the final night of the regular season – the Indians completed a state championship run Saturday night with a 79-73 victory over the Suncoast champion St. Petersburg Titans.
With the win, Chipola moved to 25-5 on the season and earned an automatic berth to the NJCAA National Tournament in Hutchinson, Kan., March 17-22.
"It feels great," Chipola coach Patrick Blake said after the game. "We've had to overcome a lot to get to this point and had to beat three really good teams. It was important for our guys to come together like they did and make plays at the end. I'm really excited for our guys."
Sam Cassell, Jr. topped the 20-point mark for the third consecutive game to claim the tournament's Most Valuable Player award, finishing with 22 points Saturday and scoring 16 of those in the second half.
The redshirt freshman and UConn signee also scored 26 points in Wednesday's win over host and defending national champion Central Florida, and added 20 in Friday's semifinal win over Polk State.
The crafty point guard was a big shot-maker all tournament for the Indians, and helped ice games late from the foul line, making 27-of-30 free throws for the week.
"Sam just keeps getting better and better with each game and he was huge for us down the stretch," Blake said. "I'm really proud of the progress he has made as a player."
Chipola took control early on with a transition basket from Bowers and a three-pointer by Torian Graham to go up 17-8 early in the first half, but St. Petersburg fought back with a 13-4 run late in the half to tie it up 29-29 after a fast break bucket by Reggie Smalls following a Chipola turnover.
Four straight free throws by Cassell, Jr. made it 33-29 Indians at the break, but a pair of three-pointers by Jordan Stephenson early in the second half gave the Titans their first lead of the game at 37-36 with 17 minutes to play.
A three-pointer by Cassell, Jr. with 12:05 on the clock put Chipola up 50-47, but Devonte Pratt answered with two free throws and a triple of his own to make it 52-50 Titans.
After a driving basket by Graham got the Indians to within one at 57-56, Pratt got fouled on a three-point attempt by Morris and drained all three free throws to give the Titans a four-point edge with 9:02 to play.
That's when the game started to turn in Chipola's favor, with Demetrious Floyd knocking down a three-pointer from the right wing and Cassell, Jr. making a tough turnaround jumper from the left corner to put the Indians back on top 61-60.
A pair of free throws by McKay made it a 7-0 run and gave the Indians a three-point lead with 6:59 left.
Two free throws from Cassell, Jr., a basket inside from Bowers, and two more foul shots from Morris gave Chipola a 69-62 edge with 2:19 remaining, completing a 13-2 run.
As Chipola sizzled, St. Pete fell apart offensively, making just one field goal over an eight-minute stretch after going up 56-52 with 10:24 remaining.
But the Titans had one last surge in them, with a pair of free throws by Prince Foster and a three-pointer by Pratt cutting the lead to 71-67 with 1:15 to play.
A three-point play by Foster cut it to three with 36.5 seconds on the clock, but the Indians continued to make their foul shots down the stretch, as McKay, Bowers, and Morris all went 2-for-2 in the final 30.2 seconds to seal the win.
Chipola made 30-of-33 free throws for the game, including 19-of-20 in the second half, while St. Petersburg finished 16-of-22 from the charity stripe.
"Our guys were just determined. They weren't leaving Central Florida without a championship," Blake said of his players. "I give all the credit to the guys for being able to lock in and focus and knock those (free throws) down."
Pratt led St. Petersburg with 15 points on just 3-of-13 shooting, with Foster going for 12 points and seven rebounds, Smalls 11 points, and Colton Lewis 10.
St. Petersburg fell to 20-13 and will have to hope for an at-large bid to the national tourney.
The Indians will definitely be in Hutchinson and will go there playing arguably their best basketball of the season.
"Any time you're able to win the Panhandle Conference and win the state of Florida you know you can compete with anyone," Blake said. "We'll enjoy this, but we don't want to settle. We still have a great opportunity ahead of us. There is still a lot of opportunity for this team to grow and get better. We've put ourselves in position to go out there and try to make a run."