After beating rival Durant to reach the district finals, the Raiders couldn’t overcome one of the state’s top teams.
After putting together a 21-4 regular season record, Plant City entered the 7A District 9 tournament as the second seed, earning a bye to the district semifinals where they faced a 14-11 Durant team that was fresh off of a 71-36 drumming of Haines City in the quarterfinal round. Hosting the Cougars in a packed Plant City High gymnasium, the game went down to the wire as the Raiders escaped with a 44-40 win in a hard-fought rivalry match.
Plant City opened the scoring with a jumper from senior Damian Jones to give the Raiders a 2-0 lead, followed by another tough layup by Jones on Plant City’s next offensive possession as he battled through contact at the rim. Durant senior Xavier Peavy earned a trip to the line and hit both free throws to cut the deficit to 4-2 and a pair of offensive rebounds on their next trip down the court resulted in a bucket from senior Abiola Adeyemo to knot the contest at 4-4. A steal for Durant — paired with more strong offensive rebounds from the Cougars — led to a layup from senior Cam Cotal to give the Cougars their first lead of the night, followed by yet another steal on the defensive end and a midrange jumper from Peavy for an 8-4 advantage. Threes from Plant City’s Malachi Morris and Ray Cowen, separated by a layup from Adeyemo on the other end, left the two teams tied at 10-10 heading into the second quarter.
The second quarter began with a lengthy scoreless streak from both sides, with over half the period ticking away before Plant City junior Mike Bell broke the spell with a three to give the Raiders a lead back at 13-10. After a defensive stop for the Raiders, Jones then ran the court and converted a layup on the fast break to extend their lead to 15-10, but a second chance bucket from Durant junior Isaac Correa and a layup in transition from junior Austin White had the Cougars back within one. But the Raiders finished the quarter with a floater from junior Chase Dexter and a pair of free throws from Bell to take a 19-14 lead into halftime.
Durant quickly wasted no time clawing back within one with a quick three from White to open the third and the two teams battled back and forth, bucket for bucket, in the third. Heading into the fourth, Plant City held on to a narrow 29-24 lead and were able to just stay ahead of the Cougars for the remainder of the night as they escaped with a 44-40 victory and advanced to the district championship for a rematch against top-seeded Winter Haven. Entering the district championship last Friday, Winter Haven had compiled a 22-4 record, ranked as MaxPreps’ #3 team in the state of Florida, only trailing Montverde Academy and Miami’s Columbus High School.
The two teams had previously faced off in early December, with the Blue Devils taking a 73-60 victory over the Raiders, so Plant City certainly faced an uphill battle if they hoped to topple Winter Haven and lift a district trophy.
Looking to slow the game down, Plant City opened the contest with a long possession but were ultimately unable to convert at the rim before Winter Haven opened the scoring with a three, a defensive stop and a bucket inside to take a 5-0 lead early. Crisp ball movement on the other end led to an open three from Jones but Winter Haven immediately answered with another score from inside the paint, then drew a foul on the shot and hit the lone free throw, then converted on a transition layup after another defensive stop to pull out in front 10-3. A quick run from Plant City put them right back in the contest though, heading into the second quarter trailing just 12-10. In the second, Winter Haven began to pull away. Despite Plant City’s best efforts to keep it close — battling back to close the early deficit to just 18-14 midway through the quarter — Winter Haven took advantage of their strong defense, a massive size advantage across their lineup and red-hot shooting to take a 34-21 lead into halftime.
In the second half the Blue Devils continued to show why they are one of the premier basketball programs in the state, outscoring the Raiders 49-23 over the final two quarters to claim a district championship on the heels of an 83-45 victory.
But despite a loss in the district finals, the Raiders were strong enough throughout the regular season to earn a three seed in their region where they will face Alonso.
Currently holding an 18-8 record, Alonso will head to Plant City with some familiarity still in the back of the minds of both programs as the two teams met less than two weeks ago when the Ravens claimed a razor-thin victory over the Raiders in a 50-49 overtime matchup. Fresh off of a 48-32 playoff loss of their own against Plant, Alonso will make their way to Plant City for the regional quarterfinal matchup at 7 p.m. on Thursday.