Central Florida is one victory away from a men's basketball state championship.
The third-ranked Patriots on Friday edged second-ranked Palm Beach 81-77 in the semifinal round of the FCSAA State Tournament at Chipola College in Marianna. CF (25-7) will play Northwest Florida, the state's top-ranked team, in the state final Saturday at 6 p.m. EST.Open shots and points came freely in comparison to Wednesday's grueling quarterfinal win over tournament host Chipola. The deep and versatile Patriots responded well to the shift in tempo, scoring efficiently while maintaining the defensive intensity that held Chipola under 50 points two days prior.
Sophomore guard Hunter Williams scored 5 points over consecutive possessions with under 7 minutes to play before halftime, putting CF up 24-19 and establishing the most substantial lead enjoyed by either side. Forward Will Saunders continued the push with a 3-pointer with 5 minutes remaining, pushing the Patriot lead to 6.
A series of emphatic blocks by CF center Alhaji Fullah kept the Panthers from closing the gap before halftime, leading to a solid 35-28 halftime advantage for CF.
The Panthers came out stronger in the second half, quickly trimming the lead to a single point in the opening minutes. Consecutive 3-pointers by Williams kept Palm Beach at bay. Fullah's hook with 16 minutes to play pushed the CF lead back to 7, and the big center's transition putback 30 seconds later gave the Patriots their largest lead at 49-40.
Refusing to disappear, the Panthers fought back to within 2 points with 6:51 to play. The Patriots again persevered, restoring its double-digit lead and seemingly putting the game out of reach. When Palm Beach climbed back to within a basket, sophomore Luis Jacobo finished the job, making 8 of 8 free throws in the final 2 minutes to secure the win.
Jacobo had 22 points to lead three double-digit Patriot scorers. Eugene McCrory added 14 along with a team-high 6 rebounds, and Williams had 13, including a 3-for-5 effort from 3-point range.
The defense again set the tone for a CF win, holding Palm Beach to 35 percent shooting and a 1-for-12 performance from long range.
A win Saturday would earn CF the second men's basketball state championship in program history; Gene Smithson led the Patriots to state gold in 1996. Tim Ryan, taking his seventh consecutive Patriot team to the state tournament, guided the Patriots to the state championship game in 2007.
The winner of Saturday's game will advance to the NJCAA Tournament, set for March 20-24 in Hutchinson, Kan.