LAKELAND – Earlier this season, Rickards guard Maurice Howard missed a critical free throw late in the game against district foe Suwannee that resulted in a 54-53 loss at home.
The miss stuck with junior point guard throughout the season, enough so that when the state playoffs rolled around, Howard knew he wouldn’t let his team down again.
On Friday morning, Howard was instrumental in helping the Raiders seal a 65-59 victory by hitting 7 of 8 free throws in the last minute of their Class 5A State semifinal contest against Tarpon Springs.
Rickards advances into Saturday’s championship against the second semifinal winner between St. Petersburg Gibbs and Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons.
“I said to myself here I’m not going to lose the game not with me at the line,” said Howard, who finished with 14 points.
Getting to that point seemed almost impossible with the way Rickards began the game. While Tarpon Springs (30-2) was making 7 of 11 shots in the first quarter, Rickards struggled from all over the floor, shooting 23 percent (3 of 13) on its way to a 19-6 deficit.
“This was the first time playing here so we had to find our shots, find our rhythm,” said Reynard Wade, who had 11 points.
“But we’ve been down plenty of times this season so all we know is to fight and stick together. That was the biggest thing.”
That, and the intensity of the defense. After discussing it during the time-out between quarters, the Raiders (17-12) forced seven turnover in the second period leading to several easy baskets with six different players scoring as Rickards went into halftime trailing 28-24.
“We knew we had to play better defense by keeping their guards out of the lane,” said Howard, who had two of the Raiders’ 14 steals.
“We watched their tape and saw how they would drive into the lane and dump off to their big men. For us guards, we had to do a better job of pressuring their guards so they couldn’t get deep into the lane which was creating easy baskets.”
In the third quarter, the Spongers increased their lead to 31-24, but the Raiders went on an 11-2 run after that to go ahead for the first time in the game when Aaron Bailey sank two free throws with 2:29 left in the period.
It was a back-and-forth contest after that with eight lead changes until Rickards took over for good on two free throws by Javon Wooten.
“We just had to keep going,” Howard said when asked if the Raiders were relieved upon taking their first lead. “At that point, I had the mentality and told the team, ‘We can’t stop until the game’s over and the clock reads double-zero.'”
Finishing the game meant doing what Howard emphasized — hitting free throws.
After exchanging leads for a majority of the fourth quarter, Wade nailed a three-pointer following one of 20 turnovers by the Spongers to give Rickards a 51-50 lead with three minutes left in regulation.
The Spongers’ Donald Davis hit one of two free throws on Tarpon Springs’ next possessionn, but Wooten’s two made foul shots seconds later put Rickards ahead for good with 2:45 left in the fourth. Overall, the Raiders sank 21 of 30 free throws while the Spongers hit just 16 of 28.
“We start every practice and end every practice with them,” said Wade, who was 3 of 5 from the line. “If we miss, well, then we have to run and we try not to do that.”
Moving on to the state finals on Saturday is something usual for Rickards, which has four championships in its history, although no one from this roster has experienced the taste of one. Raiders coach Eli Bryant has made sure they know where they stand.
“We had about 20 former state winners (from Rickards) in attendance at the region finals so it’s a constant reminder for them,” Bryant said.
“We’ve taken another step. It’s just about finishing it off now.”