LAKELAND — Alonzo Wright caught the entry pass outside the high post and backed down Hawthorne’s Donavan Wright, the Paxton senior finally asserting his 6-foot-6 frame on prep basketball’s biggest state.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, Wright caught teammate Connor Varnum flashing to the hoop and threaded the needle for the easy layup.
Paxton fans erupted, as did the Bobcat bench. In one play, 16 minutes of offensive demons were exorcized.
It’d be the start to a beautiful second half offensively for the Bobcats, who shot 50% in the final 16 minutes and got 38 points from its top scoring trio of Varnum, Wright and Latrell Sanders.
But it wasn’t enough.
The 24-12 hole created from a listless first half — 3-for-17 shooting, eight turnovers — proved too deep in a 70-58 loss in the 1A state semifinals at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
The Bobcats, like last year’s Final Four squad, came up two wins shy of the program’s first state title since 1962. Yet this team accomplished history nonetheless, the first in Paxton to defend its region title and make a second straight trip to Lakeland for the Final Four.
Before the game, Jeff Bradley said his Bobcats couldn’t match Hawthorne’s athleticism. If they were to win, Paxton’s coach reasoned, it was going to be by playing to their strengths.
The same Bobcats team that spaced the floor well, dominated the boards, got open looks and had four players averaging double figures? That crew was nowhere to be found in the first half.
Credit Hawthorne, which didn’t allow Varnum or Wright to penetrate the lane and finish, which didn’t give an inch to Sanders or Williams beyond the arc, which executed a four-corners approach with a man in the high post generating the extra pass and easy buckets at the rim.
Hawthorne senior Torey Buie, who ended up with a game-high 32 points on 10-of-19 shooting and a 12-of-14 clip from the charity stripe, outscored the Bobcats all by himself in the first half with 13 points. Varnum and Wright each had five points, and Sanders and Williams were scoreless.
But the Bobcats battled in the second half and kept it close late.
Varnum and Wright made sure of that.
Varnum reeled off nine straight points for Paxton between the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth to close the deficit to 43-35.
Sanders, who scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, answered a Hawthorne bucket with a 3 from the right corner to close the deficit to seven . Wright then attacked the rim for Paxton’s next six points to close the deficit to 50-44 with 3:56 left.
That was as close as Paxton would get.
Jeremiah James and Buie answered promptly with back-to-back buckets to push the lead to double digits and Hawthorne sealed it with a beautiful night from the charity stripe.
While the Bobcats shot 20-of-36 from the foul line, the Hornets made 31-of-37 attempts. That 11-point differential would wind up looming large, as would the first half.