Fleming Island High awaits the Mustangs at 2 p.m. March 8
The court was rushed before the teams could shake hands.
Lakewood Ranch High fans were hungry for another trip to the state basketball semifinals, and on March 1, they were satisfied.
The host Mustangs boys basketball team defeated East Lake High 57-47, sending the program to the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 8A state semifinals for the first time since 2016-2017, and the second time in program history. The Mustangs (23-6) will play Fleming Island High (22-2) at 2 p.m. March 8 at the R.P. Funding Center in Lakeland for a spot in the state championship game.
Fleming Island is led by 6-foot-3 senior guard Gianfranco Grafals, who averages 19.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, and 6-foot-5 junior forward Elias Martin, who grabs 7.7 rebounds per game. The battle on the boards will be key, as will figuring out Fleming Island's defense. The Golden Eagles have held opponents under 50 points 10 times.
Still, Mustangs coach Jeremy Schiller wasn't ready to answer questions about Fleming Island after beating East Lake.
"We have a week to prepare," Schiller said of the semifinals. "We had two days to prepare for one of the best teams in the state and won tonight. We will be fine."
The win was a culmination of two days of mixed emotions for Schiller, who requested a moment to compose himself before speaking postgame.
He first had to process a hit-and-run accident Feb. 28 that left former Mustangs player Jack Kelley in critical condition, then had to concentrate on his team's game against East Lake. Schiller said Kelley, who graduated from Lakewood Ranch in 2018, sent both the current Mustangs and the coaching staff text messages on Feb. 27, the day before his accident, wishing them good luck against East Lake.
"You have to compartmentalize so many emotions," Schiller said. "These guys are my kids. I'm happy that we have a group of teenagers that can come together through such emotions — all of these guys know Jack — and find a way to win. I mean, it's hard for adults to do their jobs when dealing with emotional things. This group of 15- to 18-year-old kids found a way to get it done. It's a magical group. They are special."
The game against East Lake was tight throughout. Lakewood Ranch's 10-point winning margin was the largest lead either team had at any point. East Lake stayed competitive thanks to its 3-point shooting, which seemed at times incapable of missing. The Eagles made 12 shots beyond the arc, six in each half, but the Mustangs did a good job of defending East Lake star junior guard Dionte Blanch, who averaged 22 points per game. Against Lakewood Ranch, Blanch had 12 points.
Junior guard Christian Shaneyfelt led the Mustangs with 23 points and four rebounds, including a buzzer-beating, 3-pointer before halftime that game Lakewood Ranch a 27-24 lead. They would lose the lead it by the end of the third quarter, trailing 38-35, but quickly regained it in the fourth and never relinquished it.
"This feels amazing," Shaneyfelt said. "We were challenged and came out on top. I'm so proud of these guys. A lot of people were doubting us this year, saying we were not going to be as good as past teams, so this feels great.
"We played really hard. We were pumped up. We kept our minds right, even when things weren't going our way, and it paid off."
The Mustangs also got big contributions from senior forward Josh Young (12 points, six rebounds), junior guard Keon Buckley (eight points, three rebounds, three assists) and junior guard Christian Perez (eight points). Buckley said Perez was the vocal leader on the sideline, firing up the squad and making sure they left it all on the court, taking the game to East Lake instead of the other way around. Young and Buckley each hit a pair of free throws in the final minutes to ice the win.
"I'm exhilarated," Buckley said, after shaking his head and smiling.