Forest heads to state final four

Forest’s Elijah Russell (3) celebrates his three-point buzzer-beater with coach Spencer Ashley and Brenen Lorient (5) as the Forest Wildcats win the FHSAA Class 6A-District 1 regional championship on Friday. The Wildcats advance to the State Final Four. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

Forest’s last trip to state came in 1973

The numbers three and four were magic for the Forest Wildcats on Friday night. 

With 3.4 seconds left in the game, it would be on the shoulders of No. 3 to get the Wildcats to the Final Four.

And at 6-foot-8, Forest junior Elijah Russell was more than capable of shouldering the daunting task of sending the Wildcats to their first Final Four appearance since 1976.

As junior Aaron Stelogeannis tossed the inbound pass to freshman X’zavion McCoy, Russell set his feet at the top of the key. The Lincoln Trojans’ (Tallahassee) defense collapsed on McCoy, who sent the rock to an awaiting Russell.

Book it.

Russell drained the textbook buzzer-beater from beyond the arc to help the Wildcats capture the Class 6A, Region 1 championship and punch their ticket to the Final Four in Lakeland.

“That’s gotta be one of the biggest shots in Forest history,” a Gatorade-soaked Spencer Ashley said. It has to be. Forty-five years since we’ve been to state and that shot sent us there.”

Forest set up the game-winning shot after milking over 90 seconds off the clock in its final possession.

With the game knotted up at 47 points apiece, the Wildcats wanted a chance at the last shot. And it appeared as though the Trojans would let them have it as they allowed Forest to swing the ball from wing to wing as time was erased from the game clock.

A deflected pass last touched by the Trojans would eventually set up the inbound pass under the Wildcats’ basket that led to the win. And as easy as Russell made the shot look, the game was far from easy for Forest.

Lincoln took a five-point lead into the locker room at halftime, followed by a two-point advantage heading into the fourth quarter. But the Wildcats have been no stranger to comeback victories.

“I said we’ve been here so many times that we were used to it,” Ashley said. “We were used to being down at the half. We were used to clawing our way back. And these guys never quit.”

The Trojans shot the three ball exceptionally well in the opening half.

Fifteen of Lincoln’s 27 first-half points came from beyond the arc. The Trojans sank just one three in the second half of play. Lincoln junior Perry Fisher led the Trojans’ scoring efforts with 18 points.

Forest’s Elijah Russell (3) celebrates his three-pointer on Friday. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
Meanwhile, though highlighted by the game-winning shot, Russell’s heroics spanned the length of the entire game.

The junior notched a 25-point performance, which led the way for the Wildcats.

“Let’s give credit to Elijah,” Ashley said. “Elijah played an amazing game… a career high in the biggest game of his life. It’s the biggest shot in the biggest game of his life.”

But with Friday night’s win, there’s a chance Russell and the Wildcats have yet to see the biggest game of their life.

“We all said we wanted to go to the Final Four,” Ashley said. “I’ve never coached a game on the Lakeland Center. I’ve been to many… probably over a hundred. These boys haven’t even seen the Lakeland Center. And to say that we get to play on the court on Wednesday… I’m just so honored to coach these guys.”

The Wildcats will go on to face the reigning champion Bartow Yellow Jackets in Lakeland on Wednesday with a state championship appearance on the line. 

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