ORANGE PARK - Fleming Island High basketball ratcheted up their game for the upcoming district playoffs with a resounding 73-71 win over 4A-region finalist Palatka High to take the St. Johns River Athletic Conference championship game held Saturday at the Orange Park High Raiderdome.
“Under a minute to play and down by two, they could have dropped their heads” said Golder Eagle Head Coach Traavis Chandler. “They kept fighting and that’s what it takes. That was a playoff basketball game right there.”
The Raiderdome seemed to have a good luck effect for Clay County teams as the Middleburg Broncos beat Matanzas and the Orange Park Raiders beat St. Augustine in earlier games for third place and fifth place.
For the Golden Eagles, now 16-7, after sprinting out of the chute gate to a 13-13 tie with a minute left in the first quarter, the Panthers used the boards to get in front of the Golden Eagles 19-13 to end the quarter.
As fast as Fleming Island went down to Palatka, they ripped open the can of physicality and poured it all out on the court, getting really physical of defense, going up 20-19 by 6:08 of the second. The Panthers tied it back at 26 each, then went ahead 29-26. Sabastian Astor, 24 points on the night, hit his second three pointer to tie it back at 29, followed by Brendan Kenny with another three to get out to 32-29 with 2:29 until half.
The Panthers called a time out to settle and regroup, which worked and broke the Golden Eagles momentum. Palatka took a 35-34 lead into the half.
The third was more fuel into the fire as the giants tied again at 50 with :38 second to play. Right on cue, Steele Perry drained a 3-pointer followed by Ahman Greenidge who stole the ball on the counter and drained it for two more, 55-50.
“Confidence- just confidence! We work so long on those shooting drills at practice and I tell them envision yourself hitting game winners," said Chandler. "I think all that work carried over into this game.”
The Panthers hit once more to close the third quarter out 55-52.
The fourth was an insane pace and the ball was flying around the court with both teams leaving nothing in reserve. Perry hit another 3-pointer to get Fleming Island up 63-59, only to have Palatka come back and go up 65-63 as the Golden Eagles couldn’t get the ball to drop and Palatka played garbage man cashing in several rebounds.
Tied again at 67, Chandler called a timeout to plan.
Back at it, the Panthers went into hyper-pass mode for 30 seconds and came away empty when the Golden Eagles robbed the ball, went the distance, but again missed the layup.
“It frustrates me when we can’t make the layups or we’re just dropping passes," said Chandler. "I told them just stick with it, eventually they will start falling.”
With Palatka up 70-67, 1:02 left to play, Fleming Island lost Perry on fouls.
Back at it, Greenidge was fouled and drained both; nothing but net, 69-71 with :35.9 to play. Still down by two, Fleming Island tied it at 71 thanks to Greenidge.
On the Panther drive, the Golden Eagles stole the ball, moved it to Sebastian Astor who drove and was fouled on a layup.
With :08.9 seconds, Astor drained the first, 72-71 Fleming Island. On the second, he missed and Elias Martin got bigtime physical under the basket to wrestle for the ball. As they went to the floor, the Panther player’s foot went out of bounds, handing the ball back to the Golden Eagles.
On the throw-in, Palatka intentionally fouled Martin who went to the line with :2.3 Seconds to play. Martin hit the first, 73-71 and missed the second.
“I tell them go into each game as if it’s win or go home," said Chandler.
With only :2.3 seconds, Palatka could do no better than get the ball around half-court when they tossed a Hail Mary that missed by several feet as the buzzer screamed, locking the Golden Eagle victory 73-71.
“I think we have enough experience from last year’s Final Four team. They know what to do, how to get the job done, and they showed it tonight,” said Chandler.
For Orange Park High coach Derek Kurnitsky, in the battle for fifth place, the Orange Park Raiders faced off against a scrappy Yellow Jackets team from St. Augustine. Despite 14 turnovers by half, the Raiders overcame and showed they are hitting their stride at the right time. “The kids gutted it out and I’m real proud of them” said Raider Head Coach Derek Kurnitsky. “It’s starting to get serious; it’s district time!”
Kurnitsky wasn’t all smiles. “We were sloppy. We have to make better decisions. We turned the ball over too much. 14 turnovers before half is never a good day.” As always, Coach K found a silver lining to keep it moving in the right direction. “They played gritty. They played tough. A win by 6, I’ll take it. We learning. We are always still learning. But it’s a win.”