MALONE — Chai Baker and the Malone Tigers were tired of being a championship stepping stone.
The Tigers’ senior scored 19 points on Friday in leading Malone past visiting Paxton 61-43 in the Region 1-1A boys basketball final. The victory ended a string of consecutive regional championship losses for Malone. The teams that beat the Tigers — Chipley and Holmes County — went on to win state titles.
Baker hopes the change in that trend propels Malone to its 14th state championship next week.
“The last two years have been heartbreaking for us to get that far and stay home,” Baker said. “We have unfinished business.”
Malone (25-4) advanced to play Chiefland, which defeated Crescent City on Friday, in the state semifinal in Lakeland on Wednesday. Paxton finished 25-4 with its third loss to Malone in four games this season. The Tigers also maintained their dominance of the Bobcats with a 13th win in the last 18 meetings dating to 1999.
Antwain Johnson added a game-high 22 points for Malone as the Tigers’ top two scorers were in typical form. Malone displayed its depth during a critical stretch in the third quarter.
Malone went scoreless for almost four minutes in the third quarter, but a 12-point lead was diminished only to nine before Baker hit two free throws with 4:20 to play.
Paxton, which led only once and then in the opening minutes, couldn’t make a significant dent in the deficit. Malone surged behind Johnson to hold a 47-35 lead at the end of 24 minutes.
Malone also weathered the final five minutes without Baker, who rested after a hard foul that left him sprawled on the court. The Tigers led by 14 at that point and eased to a berth in Lakeland.
Hugs were shared in the final seconds. Longer embraces and tears followed the final horn.
Baker scored 11 points in the second quarter, including the opening five. His off-balance 3-pointer gave Malone an 18-11 lead a minute into the second quarter as he found his shooting touch.
The Tigers’ lead grew to 25-16 on another Baker 3 with 5:15 to go in the first half. The Bobcats responded with long-range shots by Desmond Moore and Andrew Howell to pull within three points.
Johnson scored the last two baskets of the half and his 3-pointer near the buzzer staked Malone to a 10-point halftime advantage.
Will Anderson paced Paxton with 17 points and Zac Varnum scored 11. Malone’s big two stood taller, however.
“We told ourselves that we didn’t want it to end like that again,” Baker said. “Everybody on this team has heart, and we’re confident we can win if we go down there and play to our abilities.”
Fayne 1 0-0 2, Howell 1 0-0 3, Anderson 6 2-2 17, Moore 4 2-2 9, Camley 0 1-4 1, Stewart 0 0-1 0, Varnum 3 5-6 11. Totals: 15 10-15 43.
Lockett 1 0-0 3, Bailey 3 2-3 9, Baker 7 2-3 19, Johnson 6 9-11 22, Brelove 2 0-0 4, Gray 1 2-2 4. Totals: 20 15-19 61.
Paxton 11 13 12 8 – 43
Malone 13 21 13 14 – 61
3-point field goals: Paxton 3 (Howell, Anderson, Moore), Malone 6 (Baker 3, Lockett, Bailey Johnson). Team fouls: Paxton 14, Malone 16. Fouled out: None.