Vanguard (Ocala) hoops wins first district title since 2003

Vanguard hoops district champsBy Jack DaSilva

A little over two weeks ago Gainesville High School hosted Vanguard in a game that decided the top seed for the District 4-7A tournament.

GHS came out of that game with a win plus the number-one seed after winning a coin toss between GHS and Vanguard that decided the district tie-breaker.

You could feel the tension in the air during pregame warm-ups on Friday night.

Gainesville wanted to repeat the success they had against Vanguard and the Knights wanted to avenge their loss to the ‘Canes and prove they could win at “The Purple Palace” where the Hurricanes had won 43 of their last 44 games.

While this match-up between these two state-ranked teams was expected to be a defensive game, no one saw the score being 8-2 at the end of the first quarter.

The No. 2-ranked Hurricanes certainly started off slow but picked it up in the second quarter, outscoring the Knights, 16-11, to close No. 10 Vanguard’s lead to one just before halftime, 19-18.

After the half, the visiting Knights kept their foot on the pedal and stayed aggressive and maintained their lead going into the fourth quarter.
Vanguard was in control for most of the game until the last eight minutes.

Gainesville rallied behind their home crowd and took the lead a couple different times as the game winded down.

A turning point in the game was when Vanguard freshman Leonard Manuel fouled out.

Manuel fouling out didn’t just hurt Vanguard because they lost one of their best players, but the 6’ 5” freshman forward appeared to mouth-off as he made his way to the bench which resulted in a technical foul being called on the Knights.

It was a costly foul but Vanguard coach Phillip Small said, “It’s Gainesville-Vanguard so there’s going to be some craziness. There’s just going to be some back-and-forth.”

Gainesville capitalized on the technical foul by making three free throws in a row late in the game.

Vanguard answered as Quez Clayton hit two free throws with 11 seconds to play to give the Knights a 51-48 lead until Gainesville forward Christian Miller-Cardwell shocked the city.

GHS was trailing by three and needed a miracle. The ball was taken up the court and given to Miller-Cardwell who took a three-point attempt and missed.  However, it the Hurricanes rebounded and passed back out to Miller-Cardwell, who hit an off-balance three-pointer to tie the game and force overtime as time expired.

The Purple Palace erupted.

“They pouted for about 10 seconds and then I reminded them of all the hardships we’ve gone through all season and how we still haven’t lost and the look came right off their faces and I knew we were going to be ok”, said Small, who would go on to win his first game ever at GHS.
He was right.

Vanguard_KnightsVanguard came out and held off Gainesville to upset the home team, 64-57, ending Gainesville’s 18-game home win streak while Vanguard (21-6) won the District 4-7A title for the first time since 2003.

“It feels amazing,” Vanguard senior Trace Tucker said. “You know, we came into this same exact situation last year and we lost; it was a big upset. So winning this means a lot to our team and we’ve put in a lot of hard work for it.”

While Vanguard has been an exceptional team this year, Gainesville (24-3) was still the favorite to win the district title, but came up short.

“The prediction said we weren’t going to win because most people don’t win at GHS,” added Tucker. “We won and now we get a playoff game at home.”

Small reflected on his team’s championship performance and said, “All of our games have been instant classics. [Coach] Kelly does such an unbelievable job with his program. I mean obviously even long before Kelly this program has been so special in the state of Florida. It’s a great venue and it’s hard to win here; it’s an honor to be toe-to-toe with those guys.”

Vanguard put on an incredible performance in a game for the ages and will now take on St. Augustine at home in the state playoffs on Thursday, while Gainesville will travel to Englewood (Jacksonville) (17-9), which defeated St. Augustine, 69-52, to won its first district title since 2000.

The two teams, who are also ranked top 10 in The Prep Zone Power Poll, would face each other again in the regional semifinals with a win.