WINTER GARDEN The semifinals night of the District 9A-3 Tournament delivered on the hype.
While the early game Wednesday evening between top-seeded Wekiva and No. 4 seed Apopka saw the Mustangs soundly scored a 56-45 victory to advance to Friday's district championship, the late game between No. 2 Evans and No. 3 West Orange was a wild ride to the finish.
The Warriors, who had led by as many 17 points early in the fourth quarter, saw that lead evaporate over the span of four minutes as the Trojans went on a 22-5 run to tie the score at 58-58 with about 1:15 left in the game. From there, three West Orange players made a combined seven crucial free throws to hold on for the 65-63 victory.
During much of the Trojans' run in fourth quarter, West Orange looked frazzled as the Warriors struggled with Evans' full-court press and Trojans senior guard Jordan Collins hit four 3-pointers down the stretch. For Warriors head coach Eric Jones, it was a chaotic finish to a game his team nearly let slip away.
"We were able to take advantage of some leadership and experience, and we were able to prevail," Jones said, citing the need for composure down the stretch.
West Orange (16-10) was led in scoring by Jaylin Thomas' 14 points and 12 points from K.J. Simon, while Collins scored a game-high 21 points for Evans (19-7) and Ickson Masson added 18 points.
The Warriors, who led by four at halftime, outscored the Trojans 22-13 in the third quarter.
"We played a couple possessions in man (defense) and then we went back to our zone," Jones said of the halftime adjustments. "The kids bought in and they believed."
West Orange sophomore Dakota Rivers also recorded a game-high seven blocked shots, many of which came during the game's opening quarter — setting the tone for the Warriors' energy during the contest played in front of a lively crowd in Winter Garden.
"He's probably the highest-jumping kid in the Metro and he's only 15 years old," Jones said of Rivers. "He played phenomenal tonight."
The loss ended Evans' season and extended the Warriors' into next week's regional quarterfinals of the state playoffs. Before that, though, West Orange will face Wekiva at 7 p.m. Friday in the district championship.
But for Wednesday night, at least, Jones and his team were content to enjoy a memorable win.
"This is pretty special," Jones said. "We'll see what happens on Friday."
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].