PALMETTO -- After winning its district final and region semifinal on the road in two tough environments, the Palmetto boys basketball team was at home for its biggest game of the year.
It seemed logical the Tigers would feel comfortable and ride the support of their loud crowd to a victory over Melbourne in the Class 7A-Region 3 title game Saturday night.
It never happened.
Palmetto missed 14 of 22 free throws and blew an eight-point third-quarter lead in losing a 61-57 heartbreaker. The Tigers were looking to return to the state final four for the first time since 1989, but Melbourne (28-2) earns its first trip to state with the victory.
Jarrid Rhodes and Jordan Young, the Tigers' twin towers, have been Palmetto's bread and butter throughout the playoffs.
Rhodes finished with 18 points, but Young had nine and missed all five of his attempts from beyond the arc. The Tigers (23-6) got off 63 shots, but had many roll around the rim and fall out.
Palmetto looked as if it might overcome its poor free throw shooting and struggles in the backcourt when it led 36-28 one minute and 15 seconds into the third quarter.
But the Tigers gave Melbourne life.
Garrett McGann, a 6-foot guard who burned the Tigers for 25 points, nailed a trey. Tigers guard Tre Clark was stripped of the ball, and Melbourne took it down the floor for an uncontested layup. After a Palmetto free throw, Austin Awad drained a trey, and it was a ball game again.
Two free throws by Stepvon Saunders with 5:47 left in the game put Palmetto ahead 47-46. It turned out to be the Tigers' last lead.
Melbourne responded with two free throws, a conventional 3-point play by McGann, a layup by Awad and a dunk by 6-10 Abdul Sarki to complete a 9-0 run and lead 55-47 with 3:10 remaining.
"The difference in the second half was our defense. We decided to take one defensive stop at a time," Melbourne head coach Mike Sullivan said. "We didn't play any defense in the first half. We switched from man to zone, and it helped us get some timely stops. Fortunately the ball fell into our hands when we needed it."
A basket by Young cut Palmetto's deficit to 58-55 with 48 seconds remaining in the game, but the Tiger couldn't get any closer.
Melbourne missed free throws in the fourth quarter that could've sealed the game earlier, but converted 14 of 22. Palmetto missed 11 of its first 12 foul shots covering the first three quarters.
"It was a great run for our seniors. Some of the things went their way (Melbourne) at the end and if it bounced our way it might have been different," Palmetto head coach Reggie Bellamy said. "We didn't shoot free throws well. I think the pressure might have taken its toll. Their big man bothered us in the last four or five minutes."
Despite its free throw struggles, Palmetto looked to be in control at halftime with a 34-28 lead built on an 8-1 run to end the second quarter.
Rhodes had 10 points in the first quarter and finished with 18 points. Young had nine points and a team-high 12 rebounds, and Terry Collins chipped in 12 points.
Palmetto had a lot of shot opportunities in the fourth quarter, but couldn't convert and made only 3 of 16 field goal attempts to finish 21-63 from the field. Melbourne shot 20-of-50.
"Jordan had a difficult night, and a lot of times when one of them is off the other one picks up the slack," Bellamy said. "Our shots didn't fall, but what a year. There is only one team that is going to end the season on a win. I am just concerned about seniors and about life after basketball."