For the first time since 2010, Bartow beat Lake Wales in a spirited rivalry game Tuesday night in front of a raucous crowd at Warner University in Lake Wales, 71-51.
The defending state champion Highlanders had previously beaten Bartow in four straight over the last two years, making this the first victory for all eight of Bartow’s seniors over their heated rival. Bartow swept Lake Wales in the 2009-10 season, going on to win state that year.
The Yellow Jackets, ranked second in Class 7A by the Florida Association of Basketball Coaches, dominated the second half with stingy defense and good shooting from beyond the arc, outscoring Lake Wales, number one in class 5A, 44-20 in the final 16 minutes after trailing the entire first half.
“That was our best defensive performance of the year after the first quarter. We were just superb defensively,” said Bartow Head Coach Terrance McGriff. “That was the difference in the game.”
Bartow used a balanced attack, with 5 players in double figures, including leading scorer, junior Derrick Brooks with 15. Senior Kerry Jones had 12, and seniors Vontarius West, Karlos Odum and Chris Perry each added 11.
Junior guard Savonte Frazier led Lake Wales with 16, and senior big man J’Quayveon Williams added 8.
Bartow (6-0) started nervous, according to McGriff, as Lake Wales (0-2) scored the game’s first five points and jumped out to a 16-11 lead after the first quarter. Team nerves became evident to McGriff when halfway through the first quarter, big man Chris Perry, a University of South Florida commit, went up for a big dunk. He missed and got a charge call instead of passing it off to a teammate, which he usually does well, according to McGriff.
In contrast, Lake Wales started energetic but in control, using their full-court press effectively and taking advantage of numerous Bartow turnovers, taking a 31-27 edge into the half.
After halftime, the Jackets stepped up their intensity and shook off the early nerves, going basket for basket with the home standing Highlanders, who were playing at Warner University due to a scheduling conflict with the girls basketball team.
Bartow finally took the lead for good, 42-40, on a Derrick Brooks three with less than three minutes to play in the third period. After that Lake Wales fell apart, hitting only two free throws the rest of the quarter, and getting outscored 29-11 the rest of the way.
“We had a stretch where we didn’t execute on either end of the ball,” said Lake Wales first year head coach Randy Lee. “Give Coach McGriff the credit.”
Much of the Jackets’ second half run came with several Highlanders increasingly in foul trouble, including senior forward Douglas Brooks and Williams.
“We just fell apart in the second half and weren’t playing team ball,” Williams said.
Bartow also capitalized on an overplaying Lake Wales press defense, many times finding open shooters on the perimeter, and knocking down open shots.
“We can’t let quality shooters get those open looks,” Lee said. “We’ve got to be quicker to respond in the future.”
Lake Wales, despite their high ranking, is now 0-2 on the season, after falling to top-ranked nationally Montverde Academy and rival Bartow by a combined 37 points. But the team has only been together for a short time after a long football season kept several key players off the court.
As a result, 12 different players saw action Tuesday, one more than was active for Bartow, and Lee is still trying to find the right match for his squad.
“For us to be successful, we’ve got to be a team,” Lee said. “Last years team was successful because they didn’t know who was going to bring it each night, and we’ve still got to figure that out. We’re searching for an identity right now.”
The Highlanders will have one more shot at their arch-rivals this season, Jan. 4 in Bartow, in what might be a battle between Polk County’s best teams.
“We’ll be ready. They’ll be ready too. January 4, bring your popcorn. It’s the best rivalry in high school sports. Better than Lakeland-Kathleen,” said McGriff, who’s from Kathleen.
Bartow played at Lake Region Friday night in their first district game of the season, and hosts Haines City and George Jenkins Dec. 18 and 21, respectively. Lake Wales hosts Tenoroc Dec. 17 for their first district match before traveling to Virginia for the highly anticipated City of Palms Classic Dec. 19.