When senior Jaidyn Rhodes strode to the free throw line in the last three seconds of the regional finals Tuesday night, the standing room only crowd at The Nest was fluttering.
But when he calmly sank both tries afforded him by an intentional foul, the crowd swooped into the air as a Seahawk that had snared its prey.
Franklin County had earned a trip to Lakeland’s Class 1A Final Four, by virtue of having downed a pesky Cottondale Hornet squad 46-41.
The Seahawks (20-7) now have a date with top-seeded Williston (23-7) on Wednesday, March 1 in Lakeland. The Red Devils, the state’s top-ranked Cl;ass 1A school, downed Wildwood 66-63 in their regional matchup Tuesday.
Hawthorne (11-6), the state’s fourth-ranked Class 1A school, beat Newberry 43-41 in their regional final to advance. They’ll play the winner of the Jay-Chipley matchup being played Tuesday night.
“We really had to earn it tonight,” said Coach Ray Bailey, as his team prepared to cut down the nets after exuberant fans stormed the court in celebration of the win.
“They played well. They came out and made shots tonight and made it real tough on us,” he said. “But I’m proud of our effort. We pulled it out.”
Both teams came out shooting, in a blazing hot first quarter that ended with the score tied after eighth grader Sadiq Jones nailed a three-pointer to tie the score at 14.
The Seahawks outscored the Hornets 13-11 in the second quarter and went into the locker room with a slim 27-25 margin.
A Rhodes steal and layup at the end of the third quarter made it a 40-34 margin for the Seahawks, and while the Hornets got within three in the final stanza, that would be as close as they would get.
Bailey slowed the game down in the second half, forcing the Hornets to keep up the pressured defense they had maintained all game.
“We was gassed up too and I was trying to rest up on offense instead of defense,” he said. “And wear them down with all the screens that we run.”
Senior Owen Poloronis spoke for the entire team when he said afterwards that “we worked really hard and it paid off for us. We never cheated the process, we played hard every single day in practice.
“I just want to thank my teammates and my coaches, all combining and coming together to win,” he said.
Senior Ta’shawn Jones, whose scoring on rebounds under the basketball has lifted him out of a two-game scoreless streak, said it all. “We’re ready for Lakeland,” he said.
“I’m on top of the world right now,” said junior Ethan Kembro.”We’re going to Lakeland baby. I’ve been trying for four years to get this far and we’re finally here.”