Miami Norland won’t be caught off-guard by the bright lights of The Lakeland Center.
Pine Forest’s opponent today for the Class 6A boys basketball state championship, the Vikings are making their fourth appearance in the title game since 2006.
That accomplishment alone is impressive, but more remarkable is Norland’s unbeaten record in the three previous games, winning 6A championships in 2006, ’08 and ’12.
The Vikings are 7-0 under head coach Lawton Williams in the state final four and 7-1 all-time. The school’s only loss came in 1973 to Winter Haven, the same squad Pine Forest defeated 59-52 on Thursday to advance to today’s 12:35 p.m. CST tip-off.
“We’ll go over the scouting report, and what we sat up there and watched,” Pine Forest coach Brad Grant said. “Get it in these guys’ heads, we have to play defense, box out, do the little things. It’s a big stage, but I still want them to come out and do their thing.”
Norland (25-5) is led by 6-foot-2 guard Zachary Johnson. The junior is averaging 12.5 points and 4.2 assists per game, which both lead the team. Johnson led the way in the Vikings’ semifinal win against Gainesville on Thursday with a game-high 19 points and six assists.
Part of Johnson’s success is his ability to stay out of foul trouble and on the court. He played 28 minutes during the state semifinal — eight minutes more than any other player and 10 minutes more than any other guard.
He leads an impressive offense that is averaging 71.5 points during the postseason. Pine Forest (30-1) hasn’t allowed more than 63 points (Ridgeview in the Region 1-6A final) in a game all season, and enters the final with an opponents’ scoring average of just 42.2 points through 31 games.
Norland plays at a faster pace this season than in previous championship years. No Norland team has scored more than 64 points in a state championship game.
“Each year I try to coach to our strengths and weaknesses,” Williams told the Miami Herald after Thursday’s semifinal win. “This year, we’re a team that plays a lot better in transition. We had injuries, suspensions and different lineups throughout the season. The past three games we’ve been playing the way I envisioned from the start.”
Despite using a three-guard lineup, the Vikings have height inside. Starting center Tyrell Williams is 6-foot-8 and starting forward Dewan Huell is 6-9. Norland also has three bench players who are 6-6 or taller.
That height will help the Vikings inside, but they still will struggle with Pine Forest’s size. No Norland player is listed at more than 227 pounds. Eagles forwards Shamar Johnson and DeMarcus Glover weigh in at 265 and 245, respectively.
“It feels good, to tell you the truth,” Pine Forest senior forward Charlie Wilson said of having such a size advantage. “I never thought when I first started playing basketball that I would come this far, so for people to be trying to match up against us feels pretty good.”
Follow Jason Blakeney on Twitter at jblakeney_pnj or like his Facebook page at facebook.com/jasonblakeneyPNJ.