TALLAHASSEE – A first quarter scoring blitz of 22-5 and a blanket defense in the second half secured a first-ever Final Four berth for the Fleming Island High basketball team in their 67-58 region 1-8A championship win over Tallahassee Lincoln on Fri., March 1 in Tallahassee.
“The gameplan is always to come out swinging first and be the aggressor in the fight and we finally were successful at it,” said Fleming Island coach Traavis Chandler. “I was pleased with the fast start, was just hoping we could continue pouring the gas on but unfortunately it was the third round of the playoffs and I knew Lincoln wasn’t going down without a fight.”
The Golden Eagles were led in scoring by senior guard Gianfranco Grafals who hit for 26 poinys with just one three-pointer. Also adding points were Aaron Brown and Sebastian Astor; both with 14, Brown with two threes. Astor kept the Trojans at bay in the final moments with seven free throws on eight attempts as Lincoln was forced into intentional fouls to try and salvage the game.
“The third quarter we had problems putting the ball in the basket somewhat due to foul trouble, “ said Chandler. “We had to start the quarter sitting Gianfranco because of three fouls. We struggled a bit as Lincoln made a push, but we closed out the quarter in better shape than we started it. I wasn’t worried, I knew once we got the right line-up back on the floor we would be able to maintain.”
Fleming Island (22-2) continues their Cinderella tour with a Final Four Fri., March 8 match (2 p.m.) against Lakewood Ranch (23-6) in Lakeland’s RP Center.
“This is the Final Four. We knew we could possibly be here,” said Chandler. “For the most part I think our kids have believed they have been the best team when they have taken the floor. That’s huge. They are unafraid and they have played with an edge since the district final lost.”
Lakewood Ranch has posted 20-plus win seasons under coach Jeremy Schiller since his arrival in 2015. They were district champions last year to but lost in their region opener to Riverdale, the eventual region runnerup.
In 2017, Lakewood Ranch lost in the 8A semifinal to eventual champion Sickles High of Tampa.
In 2016, Lakewood Ranch lost in their region final to 7A eventual champion St. Petersburg High.
In 2015, Lakewood Ranch was their district runnerup and lost to Pinellas Park in the region opener.
In 2019, Lakewood Ranch has lost to Bishop Snyder; 48-46 Dec. 22; Coral Springs Charter, 66-48 Dec. 27; Bishop Loughlin (NY) 56-31; Christ School (NC) 54-52 Jan. 4; Vero Beach 52-48 Jan. 19 and Booker High 68-60 Feb. 2. The Mustangs are on a seven game win streak since the Booker loss.
In their region playoff games, Lakewood Ranch beat Gulf Coast (18-8) 47-36, Riverdale (18-7) 44-26 and East Lake (24-5) 57-47.
Fleming Island, who has losses to University Christian in December and to Oakleaf in the district final in February, has yet to earn a region playoff berth, but now has three region playoff wins; vs. First Coast 72-63; vs. Robert E. Lee 64-60 and vs. Lincoln 67-58.
Chandler, who has taken two teams deep into playoffs prior to arriving in Fleming Island; Bradford County in 2011 with the Tornadoes finishing in the region final against eventual 3A champion Tallahassee Rickards where Chandler was the Gainesville Sun coach of the year for 3A-5A and Miami Northwestern in 2013.
“We are a first time program here. So the pressure is on the team with the experience because everyone will assume they are supposed to win,” said Chandler. “I think the important thing is to continue doing what we do best and lock in on the next game. Continue to work on our pressure defense and represent the movement in Clay County basketball.”
In 2013, at Miami Northwestern High, Chandler got a region playoff spot and lost to Pembroke Pines in the quarterfinal with powerhouse Miami Norland beating Pembroke Pines en route to a state championship.
In 2014, Chandler’s Northwestern team lost to Norland in the region opener as Norland again trekked again to the state title.
Against Lincoln, Fleming Island built up a 38-21 halftime lead after their lightning-fast open then staved off any offensive efforts by the explosive Lincoln shooters with 14 steals on the night and strong rebounding by Elias Martin and Grafals; both with seven snags and Brown with six rebounds.
Lincoln got as close as 40-29 into the third period with an 8-2 run as Fleming Island kept misfiring on their shots, but with two minutes left in the period, Fleming Island flashed some offense with their own 9-5 run that included a buzzer beating three by Grafals as the third period ended that put Fleming Island up 49-34.
Lincoln kept pressing on defense and got as close as 59-48 as Grafals fouled out with a minute left in the game.
“He makes defenses key on him which opens up opportunities for the other players,” said Chandler. “So we struggled a bit as Lincoln made a push.”
Astor, who had eight assists, staved off the Lincoln final surge with six free throws in the final minute for the 67-58 win.