The University School Sharks are Final Four bound after defeating the Westminster Christian Warriors 39-36 in the Florida Class 5A regional final. However, the victory might come with a cost as superstar Vernon Carey Jr. left the game just before halftime with an apparent ankle injury.
With 4.2 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Carey exploded from outside the 3-point line into the center of the paint. After drawing contact as he ascended into the air for a potential signature slam, the Duke signee appeared to land awkwardly on his foot as he fell to the floor. Holding his ankle for several moments, a grimacing Carey limped off the floor with the help of his coaches but would not return to the game or the sidelines. The team’s all-time leading scorer finished with just six points on two made field goals before exiting the game.
“I have no idea medically what’s going on with Vernon’s ankle right now,” said head coach Jim Carr. “I am not rushing him back. He is too important long-term and career wise. I am not going to force him back for a game. He is a helluva player. He gave us all he can even tonight. We love him.”
With Carey absent, another highly-touted prospect took the reins to ensure the Sharks would be moving on to Lakeland. Scottie Barnes scored a go-ahead, driving bucket in the center of the paint while drawing contact for an and-one to put the Sharks up 39-36.
Photo: Chelsea Bowman, Blueprint Pro
With under a minute to go on the ensuing possession, senior Xavien Flowers and Barnes suffocated Westminster Christian and senior Marcus Montalvo into a contested shot along the baseline that fell harmlessly into the hands of Roger McFarlane without hitting the rim.
“That was a championship stop,” said Carr. “Xavien and Scottie are probably two of the best defenders in the state. They showed it tonight. They just went as hard as they can. We are excited, that stop gets us to the final four.”
Despite the miss, Montalvo was critical down the stretch, scoring a game-high 14 points while almost pulling off the major upset.
Barnes, who is considered a top-five prospect by many outlets, finished with 12 points. Just a play before the final defensive stop, Barnes used his wingspan to force a turnover into a bucket on a Westminster in-bounds play to tie the game at 36.
Despite getting heckled by a raucous Westminster crowd with “overrated” chants the entire game, the junior remained calm when his team needed him most. Without the effort of Barnes in the final stages, the Sharks dream of repeating as Class 5A champions might have come to an end.
While Barnes was clutch in the final moments, freshman Jett Howard provided the stability leading up to the dramatic ending. With Carey’s production off the floor, Howard’s fall-away 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter and driving baseline floater in the fourth, provided the Sharks with crucial buckets. Howard would finish with 11 points.
“When I caught the ball on that final possession, I just knew I had to score at that moment,” said Barnes. “I just went in and put it up. I tried to get a little contact and the ref called an and-one. He called it a little late though because he did something with his hand and I didn’t know what it was but he finally said it was an and-one. When I was at the free-throw line I was just confident because we worked on those for like ten minutes in practice so I was preparing to make that free-throw.”
Michael Costeines is a contributor for Mars Reel based in South Florida