JACKSONVILLE – Fleming Island High senior guard Gianfranco Grafals pumped in 28 points and ended the game with a slam dunk as the Golden Eagles won their first ever regional playoff game with a 72-63 road win over district 3-8A champion First Coast Thursday night at First Coast High. Fleming Island (20-2), the district 4-8A runnerup to Oakleaf continues to host Robert E. Lee (14-10) on Tues., Feb. 26 while Oakleaf’s season ended with their 66-45 region loss to Lee at Oakleaf High.
Grafals led the team in scoring with 28 points while running mate Sebastian Astor directed the offense with laser precision.
“I thought we had some first time playoffs jitters but once we got comfortable I felt we really started rolling and turned into the team we have been all season,” said Fleming Island head coach Traavis Chandler.
The Buccaneers from First Coast started off strong with a quick 8-3 lead in the first three minutes of the game with the taller Fleming Island posts giving up several offensive rebounds and second chances to score. It took Fleming Island nearly three minutes to score their first points on a three pointer by Astor after the Golden Eagles struggled to get the ball inside to post players Elais Martin and Jordan Miles.The match up seemed to favor a faster First Coast team against a bigger and deeper Fleming Island team early in the game. That is until the Golden Eagles adjusted and decided to match speed with the Bucs and use their full court press defense Clay Today sports editor Randy Leftko has copyrighted as “chaos.” The pressure worked as Fleming Island would end the final four minutes of the first period on a 14-4 run to take a 17-12 lead.
The Bucs would answer with a 6-0 run of their own to start the second period and retake the lead 18-17. However, some ill-advised three pointers by First Coast along with a pair of timely steals by Grafals helped Fleming Island retake the momentum. The Golden Eagles speedy perimeter players with high basketball IQ passing ability coupled with their taller/stronger post players started to impose their will on the Bucs by driving the lane for short jump shots, passes to open teammates and easy layup/dunk opportunities. They retook the lead with a 8-2 run by pressuring the Bucs full court and not allowing the quick guards to run any type of motion offense and took a 25-20 lead midway through the second period.
The “oh my goodness” moment of the first half was a perfectly executed alley oop pass from Astor to Grafals to bring the large contingent of Fleming Island fans to their feet and the Buc fans to perhaps say “uh oh, this may be trouble” to themselves. The half would end with Fleming Island holding a slim 29-28 advantage.
Golden Eagles shooting guard Khalid Pogue hit two early third period three pointers to give Fleming Island a seven point lead and some much needed breathing room. Grafals would also score four quick points and Fleming led 41-33 midway through the third period. After a technical foul was called on Astor for what appeared to be an accidental tripping, the unfortunate call seemed to galvanize the Golden Eagles players and coaches. They finished the final four minutes of the period on a 9-1 run for a commanding 50-34 advantage.
“I and our players never criticize an official; we just have to play through it and don’t allow a call to affect us from our goals to win games and advance,” said Chandler.
The fourth quarter saw the Bucs forced to take quick shots and gamble on defense in hopes their speed would be enough to battle back into the game. They would explode for 29 points and seem get the more “friendly” side of several calls by the officials but Fleming Island kept their foot on the offensive gas pedal as well and scored 22 points of their own including two thunderous dunks by Grafals late to advance to the round of 16 in the FHSAA 8A playoffs.
Grafals showed why he is one of the top players not only in Northeast Florida but the entire state as he and teammate Sabastian Astor made it a point to feed off each other in the second half.
“We didn’t face them in the regular season so at halftime coach (Chandler) made some adjustments and we brought more energy. I felt like in the second half we just wanted the win more because this is something we have been working for since our grueling preseason workouts,” Grafals said.
The next challenge for Fleming Island will be Lee high school who destroyed District 4 champion Oakleaf 66-45. The Golden Eagles will have another test on the road against the Generals and Grafals is looking forward to the next step towards a possible final four birth in Lakeland.
“We are trying to make history and we are going to be prepared and play as hard as we can no matter who or where we play,” said Chandler. “We were able to play with composure tonight especially in the second half. Our players have bought in to the blueprint for this program and I couldn’t be more proud of the work they have put in.”