CLASS 4A: Gainesville Eastside thrives late at the free-throw line and advances with a 67-53 victory.
By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2003
GAINESVILLE -- The season of their dreams was on the line, and all the Ridgewood Rams could do was watch.
Watch Gainesville Eastside forward Gerard Jackson, the ball in his hands at the free-throw line, ready to shoot two. He sinks the first. He sinks the second.
And watch him do it again.
Jackson went 9-of-10 on free throws in the fourth quarter, and each time he sent the ball sailing through the hoop the shoulders of the Ridgewood players dropped a bit more, their heads hung a bit lower, their hopes fading until finally there was nothing left of the season.
Fourth-ranked Ridgewood fell 67-53 in Saturday night's Class 4A, Region 2 final after tying a school record with 28 victories and coming within 8 minutes and 50 seconds of its first trip to the state final four in Lakeland.
That was when Ridgewood was within one point at the end of the third quarter after Nate Bradley ripped a rebound from an opponent and threw it in from under the basket to cut it to 43-42.
But from there Eastside took over, using its physical halfcourt defense to lock Ridgewood's 6-foot-7 center, Andrew Reed, out of the basket and keep a hand in point guard Chris Halkitis' face around the perimeter.
Eastside's 24-11 run finished the game, and it was 11-of-13 from the line in the fourth, 20-of-31 in the game.
"They earned it," said Halkitis, Ridgewood's senior leader and Sunshine Athletic Conference player of the year, who scored 18, sank four 3-pointers and had eight assists in his last high school game.
"Free throws are the biggest part of the game, and we gave it to them. When you hit that many free throws you deserve to win the game."
It was a tough finish after such a great start that saw Ridgewood (28-3) stun Eastside (26-7), taking a 28-22 lead into the half on back-to-back 3-pointers from Halkitis.
Eastside looked rough in the first half but climbed back into the game, dropping three consecutive 3-pointers in the third to retake the lead. Jackson finished with 26, scoring 18 in the second half.
Ridgewood was led by Reed with 20 points and 15 rebounds.
But Ridgewood was 6-of-8 from the line and had to abandon their offense in the final minutes. Reed's last touch came with 6:31 left, and Halkitis missed two free throws and his final five shots.
"I can't say enough about these kids," Ridgewood coach Gary Anders said. "They've won 55 games in two years. This season really spoke more to what's inside of these guys than anything else."