Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Palatka Building Hoops Tradition; Panthers One Win Away from State Championship Game

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Palatka Building Hoops Tradition; Panthers One Win Away from State Championship Game

Article excerpt

Byline: HAYS CARLYON

Happy days have come to Palatka.

The Panthers are back in the boys basketball final four for the first time since 1964.

Led by coach Lamar Purifoy, Palatka emerged as the last area team standing in the Florida High School Athletic Association state playoffs. The Panthers (26-3) will try to keep their run going against Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons (18-7) in the Class 4A state semifinals at 10 a.m. today in the Lakeland Center.

"This school was built in 1977, so really it's the first time we've gone to the final four here," Purifoy said. "It feels great, but it hasn't truly kicked in yet. It's great for the alumni. I've been going into stores this week, and people have been coming up and offering their congratulations. It's wonderful."

Purifoy has quickly built Palatka into an elite squad. In his two years, he's 51-5.

The 1991 Palatka graduate already has four playoff wins to his credit.

Those numbers are impressive, but they take on an added meaning when considering the school's hoops history.

Before Purifoy's tenure, Palatka had won four playoff games in the previous 29 seasons combined.

This will only be Palatka's second trip to the state semifinals since 1928.

The team's success has brought a tremendous amount of energy to the campus.

"We just had a pep rally this afternoon [Wednesday] and there's such a buzz around here for what we're doing," Palatka senior forward Chris Johnson said. "Everyone's telling us they are going to Lakeland to cheer us on. We're trying to win a state title for our school and make history here."

Johnson, the team's leading scorer at 14 points a game, leads a veteran Palatka club that features 10 seniors. The Panthers also have a dominant inside presence, senior center Conrad James. The 6-foot-4, 270-pound James averages 13.8 points and 8.1 rebounds a game.

"Conrad has nimble feet," Purifoy said. "He moves well for a big guy. We call him twinkle toes. …

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