LAKELAND – Any basketball movie akin to “Hoosiers” wouldn’t compare to what actually happened to St. John Paul II’s boys basketball team.
The underdog small Catholic school that hadn’t been to the playoffs in 11 years was up against the defending champs, a team that draws from all over the state and boasts players from just last season that are already college superstars.
And in a storybook ending, St. John Paul II won it all Tuesday night.
After building a double-digit lead at halftime, the Panthers gave up the lead in the second half, went to overtime, and won a Class 3A state championship here at the RP Funding Center on a dunk by senior Allan Jeanne-Rose as time expired.
“It is so much mixed emotions, and so much hard work that went into this,” senior forward Chosen Levarity said. “Last year, losing in the district semifinals – going all the way this year means so much. It’s so emotional because the hard work we’ve put in all year.”
St. JPII’s 50-48 overtime victory against Orlando Christian Prep was the stuff that dreams are made of, and it capped a 28-5 season that Panthers coach Titus Nixon summed up in one word.
“I’ve always been a sports guy and you imagine these fantasy finishes where you’re in a state championship game and it ends on a dunk,” Nixon said. “You imagine them as a player, and then when that passes you imagine them as a coach.
“This whole season has just felt like there’s something above us driving us. We use the word destiny a lot.”
Nixon was choked up with bloodshot eyes. It was pure joy. He’d just received a bear hug from his entire team, each saying, “We love you, Coach.”
“This is so multi-layered,” Nixon said. “I think about my parents that sacrificed to send me to this school in high school. It was such a great experience, and I had the desire to come back and help in some way. My wife is so wonderful and has allowed me to give so much time over five years. I’m grateful for everyone that helped me get to this point, and I’m just overwhelmed.”
St. John Paul II, which tied the school-record for wins but is now head and shoulders above its 2007 predecessor, was far from overwhelmed by the environment or its opponent.
There were a few shaky first minutes as OCP worked its way inside with ease as the Panthers rushed to outside shooters that weren’t perimeter marksmen.
But after getting their footing, St. JPII pushed out to a one-point lead at the end of the first quarter. Then the Panthers’ defense smothered the Warriors in the second quarter, holding them to four points.
Jeanne-Rose, junior guard Tyreke McElwain, and Levarity simultaneously led an offensive push of 16 points, and St. JPII led 29-16 at halftime.
After the break, OCP began to pressure full court, and the Panthers turned the ball over. If St. JPII got into a half-court set, its offense was frantic and found buckets hard to come by. OCP cut the deficit by five in the period, then even more midway through the fourth quarter as McElwain got saddled with a fourth foul.
“Championship games, the Xs and Os aren’t always where you want it because of nerves, playing a great defense usually,” Nixon said. “It felt like everything in the second half was a struggle. So much credit goes to OCP for their defense.”
Both teams had opportunities to win at the end of regulation, but in ultra-dramatic fashion the game went to overtime.
Levarity (10 points, 13 rebounds) opened the extra frame with his first 3-pointer of the night.
“I knew it was going in,” Levarity said. “God definitely guided my hand, and the ball went straight in the hoop. That shot showed that I had to be a leader on this team. I have to be the one to get everyone in line and let them know the game wasn’t over. It meant a lot in overtime. We just had to keep pushing.”
After OCP tied the game in a trade-off of baskets and free throws, both made and missed, the Panthers had 10 seconds to pull off some final magic.
Working the ball around, Levarity on the top of the circle saw Jeanne-Rose down low, and he made a power dribble and flushed home a two-handed dunk right before the final horn.
“It was all heart,” said McElwain, who scored 10 points. “Size ain’t nothing over heart. Because we have heart, we’re state champions. It’s what we’ve worked for since the first practice of the season.”
Jeanne-Rose finished with 20 points and seven rebounds.
“That last play was a broken play, but our theme of the season is selflessness,” Nixon said. “Chosen could have taken the deep 3, but he made the extra pass to Allan on the baseline.
“He set his teammate up for one of the best finishes in state basketball history.”
Class 3A state championship
St. John Paul II 50, Orlando Christian Prep 48 (OT)
SJPII 13 16 7 7 – 7 – 50
OCP 12 4 12 15 – 5 – 48
SCORERS – St. John Paul II: Allan Jeanne-Rose 20, Chosen Levarity 13, Tyreke McElwain 10, Logan Roberts 4, Zhyon Scott 3; Orlando Christian Prep: Terrance Reese 11, Barry Wagner 10, Ven Allen Lubin 9, Eric Butler 6, Nick Strachan 4, Jonthy Candelario 4, Anthony Brown 2, Brian Miller 2
RECORDS: St. John Paul II (28-5), Orlando Christian Prep (23-6)