LAKELAND — Chai Baker was like the starter who pitched eight dominant innings. Antwain Johnson played the role of closer.
Malone surged past Hamilton County 78-61 on Thursday for the Tigers’ 14th state prep boys basketball championship and first since 1998. Baker lit up The Lakeland Center with a game-high 44 points and scored all but six of Malone’s tally in the first half. Johnson started slowly, but scored close to half of Malone’s third-quarter points when the Tigers finally gained distance.
Baker opened the third with two baskets in giving Malone a 35-29 lead before Shaw Williams narrowed the gap to four points with 5:58 to play. Johnson then scored eight of Malone’s next 10 points in all fashions, three from the free-throw line, two on a short jumper and three on a 3-pointer. Xavier Gray capped a 10-2 run with two of his six points to deliver Malone a 45-33 advantage midway through the third.
Johnson had two more free throws in the quarter to up the tally to 49-35 with two minutes to go. He added his final basket and 12th third-quarter point at 1:13 for a commanding 54-39 bulge. The junior finished with 19 points.
Baker and Johnson put in their final five points in the fourth to avoid another opponent surge. Baker outdueled Hamilton County’s Kevin McClain, who kept pace in the first half and finished with 25 points before leaving the game as one of three Trojans to foul out.
Baker added 14 rebounds in helping Malone gain the edge on the boards 47-37. Johnson had eight rebounds and Gray stood in to match Baker with 14 caroms. Rebounding was crucial, Malone coach Steve Welch said, as Hamilton County (21-9) dominated Chipley in its Wednesday semifinal romp.
McClain had 10 points in the first quarter, including six on two 3s. Hamilton County was buoyed by nine points off six Malone turnovers. It staked the Trojans to an 18-12 before Baker ended the quarter with a flourish.
He made the first of Malone’s seven 3-pointers and added a free throw after a foul to pull Malone to 18-16 with 24 seconds left in the opening period. He followed with two free throws 16 seconds later to tie the game 18-18 after eight minutes.
Baker opened the second quarter with his second 3-pointer for a 21-18 Malone lead. He finished the half with 25 points and Malone (27-4) received a boost from Gray, who had eight rebounds and two points.
It compensated for the slow start by second-leading scorer Johnson. The junior made one of his eight shots and had two points, as did Alonze Bailey, with the duo leading Malone with 18 points apiece in the semifinal win over Chiefland on Wednesday. They combined for five assists and seven rebounds, Bailey grabbing five of those, as Malone led 31-29 at halftime.
Bailey had seven points and seven rebounds before fouling out in the fourth. Johnson and Baker’s typical foul trouble wasn’t a problem Thursday with both combining for only three whistles.
Williams scored 19 and had a team-high nine rebounds for Hamilton County. Jeremiah Lee added nine points and five rebounds for the Trojans, who are 1-2 in the state championship.
Whetstone 3-3 1-5 7, Washington 0-0 0-0 0, Smith 1-9 0-0 2, Lee 3-9 0-0 9, Milton 0-0 0-0 0, Walker 0-0 0-0 0, McClain 9-22 5-5 25, Cooks 1-2 0-0 2, Palmer 0-0 0-0 0, Williams 4-13 8-12 16, Keel 0-0 0-0 0, Gandy 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 21-60 14-22 61.
Lockett 0-1 0-0 0, Bailey 2-5 3-6 7, Armstead 0-0 0-0 0, Baker 12-22 17-22 44, Trawick 0-0 0-0 0, Dillard 0-0 2-2 2, Johnson 6-18 6-9 19, Brelove 0-1 0-0 0, Henson 0-0 0-0 0, Henderson 0-0 0-0 0, Gray 3-7 0-0 6.
HamiltonCounty 18 11 12 20 — 61
Malone 18 13 25 22 — 78
3-point field goals: HC 5 (Lee 3, McClain 2), M 4 (Baker 3, Johnson). Rebounds: HC 37 (Smith, Williams 9), M 47 (Baker, Gray 14). Turnovers: HC 11, M 13. Team fouls: HC 28, M 15. Fouled out: HC 3 (Whetstone, Smith, McClain), M (Bailey).
Sagemont 79, Tampa Prep 48
LAKELAND (AP) — Prince Ali had 20 points and 10 rebounds to lead Weston Sagemont to a 79-48 victory over Tampa Prep in the Florida Class 3A boys championship game.
With Wednesday’s victory, nationally-ranked Sagemont finishes the season 33-0.
The Lions came out the gate rolling as Ali opened the game with a three-point play, and Lance Crawford added a 3-pointer on the team’s second possession as they rolled to a 30-8 lead at the end of the first period.
Tampa Prep (27-4) did not provide much of a response, and when Crawford’s 3-pointer gave Sagemont a 59-23 lead midway through the third period, the game switched to a running clock per FHSAA’s mercy rule.
Jordan Cooper had 15 points and seven rebounds for Sagemont while Crawford finished with 14 points and nine assists. Sagemont shot 55 percent (33-of-60) from the floor and held a 37-23 rebounding advantage.
Juwan Durham led Tampa Prep with 19 points and six rebounds.