LAKELAND — Holmes County wasn’t the most heralded Class 1A team in the state entering the postseason. But the Blue Devils finished as the best.
Holmes County charged out early and surged past West Gadsden 59-40 to win the boys basketball championship at The Lakeland Center on Wednesday. The Blue Devils finished 20-8 and defeated the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 ranked teams in their last three games during an historic march. West Gadsden, ranked third, had an eight-game winning streak snapped and ended the season 25-9.
“All the credit goes to the boys, they played hard in the finals and especially hard” against West Gadsden, Holmes County coach Po White said. “Once they got down here they just played like there was no tomorrow. They put everything on the court and win or loss I still would have been proud of them because of their effort.”
Holmes County might not have been regarded as a favorite three weeks ago, but it had one of the best players in Florida. Chris Walker, a University of Florida signee, scored 30 points and pulled down 15 rebounds for a double-double while adding seven blocks. His hot start set the tone as West Gadsden played with scant emotion with leading scorer Brandon Shingles held to just one point.
Holmes County was 10-8 before its current 10-game winning streak with setbacks that included holiday losses in a tournament in Ocala. The Class 6A and 7A competition proved too much, but White and the Blue Devils believed they could do better. And they did.
“In our mind we knew we could have beat those teams, but we just didn’t perform,” White said. “We set them down and explained that everyone has a role and you have to play your role.
“We told them that until we all come together and do that we’ll struggle. We knew we had a team that could compete with anybody we stepped on the court with.”
The Blue Devils started their streak Jan. 25 against Marianna, but they made a statement by winning the District 2-1A championship over favored Chipley. The Tigers had defeated the Blue Devils by seven points two weeks earlier, but Walker and Holmes County ran past Chipley 50-46 in the rematch to secure home-court advantage.
Holmes County routed Paxton 72-51 to open the Region 1-1A tournament. Second-ranked Malone, a deeper team by most accounts, couldn’t contend with Walker, who had 28 points — 22 in the second half — in a 55-47 victory for the school’s first regional title. Walker had a triple-double in Tuesday’s 51-48 win over top-ranked Hawthorne to advance.
West Gadsden may have been considered a favorite on Wednesday having played in the state semifinal last season before losing to Chipley. However, fourth-ranked Holmes County had momentum and confidence buoyed by a win over Malone, which defeated West Gadsden in the regular season. Walker gave the Blue Devils plenty more of both on Wednesday.
The 6-foot-9 senior scored 17 points and had seven rebounds in the first half, which ended with Holmes County holding a slim 25-24 lead. He matched the Panthers’ Charis Fitzgerald with 11 points in the first quarter in helping Holmes County to an 18-13 advantage.
Walker went to the bench with a second foul two minutes into the second quarter after a basket that expanded the lead to 22-15. He was out for more than three minutes, but West Gadsden was unable to move any closer than three, 23-20, before Walker returned with 2:17 remaining in the second quarter.
Back-to-back baskets by Fitzgerald and Patrick Gilyard off Holmes County turnovers pushed the Panthers in front 24-23. Walker made two free throws to cap the first-half scoring.
Two Jacky Miles’ free throws finished an 8-0 run to open the third quarter and put Holmes County ahead 32-24. West Gadsden stopped the run momentarily with a Teron Fitzgerald free throw. Dalton Keen energized the crowd and his team with a turnaround 3-pointer to stake the Blue Devils to a 35-25 edge at the 1:53 mark.
Teron Fitzgerald’s basket with 47 seconds on the clock was West Gadsden’s first score of the third quarter and pulled the Panthers to within 38-27. The outcome was in Holmes County’s control by then and Walker scored his last 13 points in the fourth quarter to help the Blue Devils win their first state title.
“Chris has been unbelievable,” White said. “When he makes up his mind he can be a dominating force.
“And when he does that his teammates get on his back and they play twice as hard as he does. However hard he plays that’s how they play.”
Holmes County received balanced scoring from everyone not named Walker. Miles scored nine, Keen and Jonathan Williams seven apiece and Ty Russ six. They were the only five players to score for Holmes County, which was 17 for 34 on field goals and outrebounded West Gadsden 34-20.
Fitzgerald led West Gadsden with 14 points, while Kurstin Hinson scored nine and Marquis Brown eight. Shingles, who averaged more than 19 points per game, was 0 for 8, including missing six 3-point attempts. The Panthers shot 32 percent (14 for 44) and had 18 turnovers.
- HOLMES COUNTY (59)
- TRuss 1 3-6 6, Miles 1 7-9 9, Williams 3 0-0 7, Martinez 0 0-0 0, Moore 0 0-0 0, Walker 9 12-16 30, FRuss 0 0-0 0, Newton 0 0-0 0, Aronhalt 0 0-0 0, Keen 3 0-0 7. Totals: 17 22-31 59.
- WEST GADSDEN (40)
- Albritton 0 0-0 0, Hinson 2 4-5 9, Brown 4 0-2 8, CFitzgerald 5 1-2 14, TFitzgerald 1 1-2 3, Shingles 0 1-2 1, Gilyard 2 0-0 4, Johnson 0 1-1 1, Ceasar 0 0-0 0, Jackson 0 0-0 0. Total: 14 8-14 40.
- Holmes County18 7 13 21 — 59
- West Gadsden 13 11 3 13 — 40
- 3-point field goals: HC 3 (Keen, Williams, Russ), WG 4 (CFitzgerald 3, Hinson). Rebounds: HC 34 (Walker 15), WG 20 (Brown 6). Turnovers: HC 17, WG 18. Team fouls: HC 14, WG 26. Fouled out: None.