Let the Madness Begin!

By Mike Ridaught

Well, it’s that time of year again. I know we just wrapped up National Signing Day but I don’t get nearly as excited about that kind of stuff as I do about the state basketball playoffs. It’s March Madness in February!

I’ve been fortunate to have broadcast high school hoops from the FHSAA Basketball Finals for 20 years now. There has been a lot of great players and a lot of exciting memories over the years. From broadcasting Vince Carter’s (Daytona Beach Mainland) state championship game to Gainesville High winning back-to-back state titles, the second of which I got to be a part of on a more ‘local’ level, it’s been a great ride. I remember that GHS team was one of the best teams that I had ever broadcast for at the high school level. Sure, they had NBA player and Mr. Basketball Orien Greene on that team, but he made everyone else around him so much better and they had some big wins at the Purple Palace on their way to back-to-back state titles in 1999 and 2000.

In fact, since I’ve been covering hoops in Alachua County, it’s been pretty good overall. In addition to GHS’ back-to-back trophies, they also won a state title in 2009. Plus, since I arrived 12 years ago, Eastside won their only state title (2006), PK Yonge has been to four state semifinals & has played in three title games, and Hawthorne & Santa Fe have made an appearance in Lakeland too. So, for a 10-year period, there was always a chance that a team in the state semifinals would come from the city of Gainesville.

From GHS’ titles in ’99 and ’00 to their state championship in 2009, there was at least one Alachua County team represented in the final four each year except 2005. That year, PK Yonge lost to eventual champion Arlington Country Day (Jacksonville) in the regional finals – just one game shy of the state semifinals. In 2010, there were no teams from Alachua County, although Williston (Levy County) was there but that team lost to Brandon Knight and Pine Crest (Fort Lauderdale) in the state semifinals (I would definitely have to put Knight in my all-time top 10 players that I’ve broadcast from the FHSAA Boys Basketball Finals).

Then, last year, there were no Alachua County teams still alive past the second round. Making matters worse was the fact that Gainesville, Buchholz & Eastside didn’t even qualify for the postseason. So, I’m really happy to see that there is a chance that more teams from Alachua County will have a chance to get into the postseason. Alachua County may not bring home a state title, but there are at least one or two teams that have a shot to do so this year.

Eastside has put together a six-game winning streak since their loss to Gainesville two weeks ago, including a buzzer-beater against GHS this past Friday night for a 38-36 win. The Rams (21-4) are currently ranked 4th in the state in Class 5A (Source Hoops) and only need to beat Belleview on Tuesday to advance to the district semifinals and automatically qualify for the state playoffs. However, wins in their next two games will give the Rams home court advantage in the first round of the 5A playoffs. It was almost déjà vu on Friday. Last year, Raheem Watkins hit a 60-foot shot at the buzzer to give the Rams the double-overtime win and a sweep of the rival Hurricanes. This time, it was his cousin, senior Marcus Richards, who hit a baseline floater at the buzzer for a stunning 38-36 win and a split in this year’s series. Eastside’s defense gives it a legitimate chance to make a run to Lakeland.

Despite the loss, the ‘Canes (17-8), who have lost two city games at the buzzer (Eastside & Buchholz, 1/13) and with its largest margin of defeat at just five points, need just one win to qualify for the state playoffs. GHS will travel to Lake Weir (Ocala) for their district semifinals in Class 6A. They’ll face either South Lake or Lake Weir for the right to advance to the postseason. Gainesville started 10-0 but had some tough set backs, including the loss of 6’6 sophomore Isaiah Jackson, who broke his leg against Buchholz. Jackson led the team in just about every category and was second in scoring. They have proven they can play with anybody (with Jackson) but they have struggled to finish games without him. The ‘Canes have gone just 4-4 since the loss of Jackson. If the Hurricanes don’t get to Lakeland this year, they’ll be a huge favorite to do so next year with Jackson (#11 Class of 2014) and the current #1 freshman in Florida (Source Hoops), Ed Porter.

“Just his leadership is a big loss,” said fourth-year coach Kelly Beckham, who has beefed up the schedule to include Class 7A #1 Ely (Pompano Beach) and Class 6A Mainland (Daytona Beach), as well as out of state teams in a holiday tournament in Lexington (KY). “If you want to be a top 10 team, those are the kind of quality opponents that you have to play.”

St. Francis Catholic (18-8) and its district champion, PK Yonge, are both a win away from qualifying for the 3A state playoffs, while Hawthorne (17-7) could make another run for Lakeland in Class 1A. Overall, boys’ basketball is on the rise and we’ll provide you with ‘live’ coverage on local radio in Gainesville.

This Friday, February 10, will be a quadruple broadcast on the Prep Zone Sports Network, as we broadcast both semifinals from the Class 6A-District 5 (Leesburg vs. Ocala Vanguard at 6 p.m., followed by Gainesville’s game at 7:30 p.m.), plus both semifinals in Class 3A-District 3 (St. Francis Catholic vs. Orange Park St. Johns Country Day at 6 p.m., followed by PK Yonge vs. St. Augustine St. Joseph or Oak Hall at 7:30 p.m.)

Marty Pallman will have the call from Ocala on ESPN Radio (AM-1230 Gainesville & AM-900 Ocala). Meanwhile, I’ll be in Gainesville on Sports Radio 850 (AM-850 Gainesville). That’s four games with four bids to the state tournament on the line available on local radio, plus we’ll have ‘live’ audio here at the Prep Zone.

On the girls’ side, there are four legitimate Alachua County teams seeking a spot in Lakeland. Buchholz is ranked #1 in Class 7A, while Gainesville (#7-6A), PK Yonge (32-3A) & Newberry (#3 in 1A) are among four local teams ranked in the top 10 that have a legitimate chance at reaching the FHSAA Girls Basketball Finals in Lakeland (Feb. 21-25). All four teams won their district tournament and will be at home for at least the first round of the state playoffs.

Gainesville brought home two state titles in girls’ basketball in 2010. The Rock won their first-ever state title, while PK Yonge breezed their way to a state title by winning their state championship game by 26 points. They could easily bring home two more this year.

The next four weeks will be about survive and move on. Plus, we’ll have more basketball this year during the state finals to accommodate the expansion from six classes to eight classifications. The tournament now includes a total of 24 games, instead of 18 games, and over a five-day period the last two weeks of the month.

Here is the schedule for this year’s FHSAA Basketball Finals

(Girls: Feb. 22-25 & Boys: Feb. 28 – March 3)

Tuesday
10 & 11:30 a.m. (1A Semifinals)
2:30 & 4 p.m. (2A Semifinals)
6 & 7:30 p.m. (3A Semifinals)

Wednesday
10 a.m. (1A Final)
2:30 p.m. (2A Final)
6 & 7:30 p.m. (4A Semifinals)

Thursday
10 a.m. (3A Final)
2:30 p.m. (4A Final)
6 & 7:30 p.m. (5A Semifinals)

Friday
10 & 11:30 a.m. (6A Semifinals)
2:30 & 4 p.m. (7A Semifinals)
7 & 8:30 p.m. (8A Semifinals)

Saturday
10 a.m. (5A Finals)
1:30 p.m. (6A Finals)
5 p.m. (7A Finals)
8:30 p.m. (8A Finals)

Let the madness begin!