Monday, March 16, 2009

Hillsborough Terriers Reach Hoops Finals, 3/15/69

On March 7, 1969, a local version of "March Madness" captured the attention of local sports fans. Hillsborough High School, in search of its first state title since 1959, prepared for the state Class AA Region 3 basketball tournament after completing a 21-1 regular-season mark. The Terriers, no strangers to high-stakes basketball, had swept through districts and were poised to begin an exciting run to glory.

Up first for the Terriers would be the crosstown rival Plant Panthers. Hillsborough, the state's top-ranked team, topped Plant twice during the regular season and fully expected to complete the hat trick. The game served as little more than a tune-up for Hillsborough, as the Terriers spanked the Panthers, 79-44, in front of over 3,000 fans at the Tampa Catholic High School gym. Earlier in the day, guard Charlie Green learned he had earned a unanimous selection to the all-state high school basketball team. Green, a senior, finished the game with 27 points and put a once-close game out of reach with his hot shooting.

Green saved some bullets for the following night's tournament finals against the Clearwater Tornadoes. In front of another packed house, Green again delivered. Behind a stellar effort that featured a tenacious full-court press, the Terriers were able to control the state's fourth-ranked team despite several scares.

Green led the way with 15 of his team's 23 first-quarter points en route to a 34-point night. The Tornadoes stayed within four points of the Terriers until Hillsborough pulled away with under a minute left in the game. Trailing, 60-57, with time running down, the Tornadoes needed to foul to get the ball. The Terriers made them pay by converting six straight free throws to put the game out of reach, ultimately wining by a comfortable ten-point margin, 69-59. The win earned Hillsborough a fourth trip to the state finals in seven years.

After the game, Clearwater head coach Jack Wilson praised Green's effort.

"Green was the best I've ever seen," the coach said. "He's not fancy, he does everything he's supposed to do except that he does it better than anyone else."

Plaudits aside, Green and the Terriers still had unfinished business. Since defeating Miami High for the title in 1959, recent trips to the finals had left the Terriers and their fans unfulfilled. In 1964, Hillsborough fell to eventual state-champion Pensacola in the semifinals. The following two seasons in 1965 and 1966 resulted in devastating finals defeats to Jacksonville Paxon and Pensacola. The Terriers did not want to go so far and come up empty yet again.

On March 14, as the astronauts of Apollo 9 were welcomed back to Houston after their four-million mile space voyage, the Terriers were welcomed to the Jacksonville Coliseum for an evening showdown against Coral Gables High School. Hillsborough played like a team determined not to let history repeat. Still, it took a pep talk at the half by head coach Bob Shiver to get his team in gear.

Trailing, 40-34, at the half -- the first time it had trailed at the intermission all season long -- Shiver challenged his team by reminding them of this fact and urging his team to be more aggressive on defense.With their playoff lives on the line, the Terriers responded with a 25-point third quarter to erase the lead while holding Coral Gables to only four points in the quarter. Charlie Green -- who else? -- added 12 points in the quarter en route to his 31 for the game. The rout was on and the Terriers pulled away, disposing of Coral Gables 84-62 to reach the state finals.

Standing in the way of Hillsborough were the Gainesville Hurricanes, led by multi-sport star Eddie McAshan. Named the state’s outstanding football player in 1968, McAshan earned a scholarship to attend Georgia Tech and a chance to compete for the starting quarterback position. The Terriers would have their hands full trying to stop McAshan, who registered 30 points and 22 rebounds in Gainesville’s semifinal win over Jacksonville Raines.

On March 15, in front of a crowd of 5,026 at the Jacksonville Coliseum, Hillsborough once again found itself down at the half. Green rallied the Terriers late and sank two free throws with 1:25 left to tie the score at 50. The Terriers took their first lead of the game when Ron Mitchell added two more free throws to give Hillsborough a 52-50 advantage.

McAshan proved clutch for Gainesville by hitting a short jump shot with just seconds left to tie the game at 52. In what turned out to be a costly mistake, Charlie Green committed an offensive foul – his fifth of the game – while driving to the basket with two seconds left. The game went into overtime, and Hillsborough played a version of “four corners” to control the ball and run down the clock. The Terriers held the ball for 2:45 of the three-minute overtime until the Hurricanes pressured Charley Henderson, in for the fouled-out Green, at mid-court to force a jump ball. McAshan controlled the tip and sank the game-winning shot from eight feet out with 13 seconds left in overtime. His 15th and 16th points of the game sealed the deal for Gainesville, sending the Terriers to yet another heartbreaking defeat in the finals, 54-52.

Despite a magnificent 28-2 season and the unforgettable play of their leader, Charlie Green, the Terriers fell just short in their bid for another state title. In a strange twist, the championship was the first for Gainesville since 1922, when it defeated none other than the Hillsborough Terriers by an identical two-point margin.

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