by Daniel Rossi-Montero
On March 4, the Christopher Columbus High School varsity basketball team defeated Winter Haven in the FHSAA Class 7A state championship game, keeping audiences on the edge of their seats until the end of regulation. The Explorers (26-4) won their second straight state title when junior Malik Abdullahi's steal at midcourt led to senior Garyn Bess' game-winning layup with only six seconds remaining.
Throughout the game, the Explorers and the Blue Devils fought hard against each other, with Winter Haven having a miniscule 16-15 lead after the first quarter. Columbus stormed back, leading 33-27 at halftime. The heavyweight fight continued on back and forth as the Blue Devils came back and lead 41-39 at the end of the third quarter. With the game evenly matched, the closing minutes were an intense experience for both teams and their fanbases.
In the final seconds of the game, Winter Haven's Dylan James made one of two free throws with 38 seconds left on the clock, giving his team a 48-47 lead. Abdullahi then made one successful free throw, tying the score at 48 with only 21 seconds remaining. With Bess and Abdullahi's full-court pressure against Winter Haven's Isaac Celiscar, Celiscar brought the ball across half-court. However, Bess tipped Celiscar's pass and regained possession before attempting another pass. Abdullahi then stole the ball and advanced it to Bess, who made the game-winning layup.
"My heart was racing extremely fast but I was also worried about the team not getting back on defense after the layup," senior guard Kevin Noriega said. "While celebrating after the game, I was in shock. It all happened so fast."
The victory was achieved through the team's collective effort, with four-star sophomore player Cayden Boozer leading the way by scoring a game-high 21 points. The top-ranked sophomore Cameron Boozer was contained to 13 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, and three blocks, while Bess contributed 11 points and five rebounds. Winter Haven put in a valiant effort until the last moment, with junior guard Jamie Phillips Jr. and Dylan James scoring 13 points each, and Kjei Parker achieving 12 points.
Blue Devils Coach Tyrone Woodside applauded Columbus for their skill and capacity to stay true to their strengths.
Garyn Bess, who played a pivotal role in the final moments of the game, expressed his love for his teammates and that the Blue Devils were the best team he had ever played against.
Malik Abdullahi, who made the game-winning steal, said he was just trying to be as active as possible on defense and give it his all for his team.
Columbus Coach Moran was thrilled with the team's performance, stating that he was so happy for Bess, the rest of the team, and all the other players who played a huge part in their success. The win was an emotional moment for the team, who had put in a lot of hard work and effort throughout the season.
The players exhibited their athletic prowess and resilience throughout the match, making it an exciting and entertaining game to watch. Both Columbus and Winter Haven played with a lot of heart and fought hard until the very end, making the victory even sweeter for the Explorers. The game was a testament to the hard work and dedication of the players and coaches, who had put in countless hours of practice and preparation to reach this level of play. Overall, it was an unforgettable and memorable game that showcased the best of high school basketball.
On Friday, March 10, the school organized a celebration of the team's state championship on the football field with the entire student body in attendance. After a few speeches, the latest state championship banner was unveiled.
"The celebration made me realize that my basketball career was coming to an end in one moment in time," Noriega said. "It was a great experience and a great ride. Two for four championships ain't too bad."
Christopher Columbus High School basketball team's victory in the FHSAA Class 7A state title game was a testament to their skill, teamwork, and will to win. A new championship banner hands in the gym. Will there be a three-peat?