By Marty Pallman
The Prep Zone
The match-up most were waiting for will take place for the 7A-4 district tournament championship on Friday at Gainesville High School.
The top two seeds, #1 Gainesville and #2 Ocala Vanguard, easily advanced through their semifinal games tonight will meet for the third time this season and 7th time in two years this Friday at the Purple Palace.
Vanguard cruised past third-seed Columbia (Lake City), 61-45, in the first semifinal game. Columbia (14-14) led by as many as five points in the second quarter, but the Knights (20-6) went on a late run to take a 30-29 lead into the halftime break.
The Knighs held the Tigers without a field goal for the first six minutes of the third quarter, but still could only manage a five point lead at 41-36 going into the final period.
But then Vanguard turned up the defense early in the fourth quarter, eventually pulling away for as much as a 19 point lead. Vanguard beat Columbia three times this season.
The Knights were led by senior Quez Clayton, who scored a game-high 28 points, including 11 points in the final period as Vanguard outscored the Tigers 20-9 in the last eight minutes.
Clayton had 15 points in the first half, including 2 three pointers, but only scored two points in the third quarter before the final period explosion.
Freshman Leonard Manuel added 14 points, 7 in each half, and senior Devontae Bynes was also in double figures with 10 points.
Columbia was led by freshman Jordan Smith with 16 points before fouling out with 1:25 left in the game. Bobby Fulton came off the bench to add 11 points for the Tigers.
Vanguard will get another shot at Gainesville on their home floor Friday. The Purple Hurricanes (24-2) gained their 15th straight win by pounding fourth-seeded Ocala Forest 83-59 in the second semifinal.
Gainesville only led 19-17 after the opening period as junior Dallas Tealer had eight points, hitting two threes behind the arc, and junior Christian Miller-Cardwell added eight points.
The Purple Hurricanes turned it on in the second quarter, outscoring the Wildcats 23-14 and extending the lead to 42-31 at the half. Senior Isaiah Wilson scored 10 points in the period with Miller-Cardwell adding another eight points.
Gainesville continued to pull away in the second half, eventually leading by as many as 29 points in the fourth quarter. Miller-Cardwell led GHS with 22 points, with Wilson next with 17 points and Tealer also in double figures with 15 points, including four threes.
The Purple Hurricanes also beat Forest (14-11) for their third time this season, the last two games by 20 and 24 points after GHS edged the Wildcats 69-68 in the opening week of the season.
Forest was led by T.J. Martin with 14 points, and Dantwan Grimes chipped in 11 after scoring 25 points in the Wildcats 73-47 win over Lake Weir in the play-in game on Tuesday.
So this sets up another meeting between Gainesville and Vanguard.
A year ago GHS won three of the four meetings, incuding two thrillers. The Purple Hurricanes rallied from 18 down in the second half to beat Vanguard a year ago in the district championship game, then won in double OT in the second round of the regional playoffs after Rudy Bibb-Boyd hit a late winner.
The teams have split two meetings this year. Vanguard beat the Purple Hurricanes in Ocala on December 9, as Clayton tied the game on a late three pointer, and the Knights won in overtime 67-60.
In the second meeting on January 26, GHS held off Vanguard 51-48 as Clayton had another tying three go in-and-out at the buzzer. That caused a tie for the top seed in the district, and Gainesville won the ensuing coin flip and the right to host the district tournament.
Friday’s championship game can be seen with ‘live’ video via the NFHS Network beginning at 6:45 p.m. You can also listen to the game on the radio beginning at 7 p.m. for the tip on Florida Sports Talk The Team in Ocala (AM 900 & FM 100.1) and Gainesville (AM 1230 & FM 92.1).
The winner will host a first-round FHSAA playoff game while the loser will be on the road. The FHSAA regional playoffs will begin on Thursday, Feb. 16.
The Gainesville-Vanguard game is also a match-up of two of the top 10 teams in the state in Class 7A. The Purple Hurricanes are ranked second while the Knights are ranked 10th.