The third-seeded Central Bears Boys Varsity Basketball team (22-6) defeated the six-seed Robinson Knights (15-11) by a 68-33 margin at the Bears’ Den on Thursday night. This matchup was a region quarterfinal in the 2023 Boys Basketball State Tournament – 4A. While both teams had successful seasons, the Bears came into the matchup having won eight of their last nine games. The visitors from Tampa, on the other hand, had ended their season on a three-game skid heading into Thursday’s playoff tilt. With the Knights failing to record a victory since January and them being the lower-seeded squad, the concern for the home crowd could have been that the visitors would come in more hungry and focused than the home team. As evidenced by the score, that was not the case. Bears Head Coach Matt Zandecki explained why after the game.
“We really stepped it up, man,” Coach Zandecki said. “Any time we get to play a team from the city, it’s a statement for our program. Honestly, I think Robinson came in thinking that they’re the favorite, and I think we kind of took that personally. Yeah, so we played with like a chip on our shoulder, and we’re the best when we do that. So, we really fired on all cylinders today.”
The Navy and Silver got hot early and rarely relented. The Bears’ Junior David Villarroel got the scoring started with a layup less than a minute into the contest before Senior Jonah Irwin answered seconds later with a short jumper to tie the game at 2-2. This would be the last and only time the Tampa-based Knights would knot the game up. Senior Tylor Daniel and Junior Braden Joyner would put Coach Zandecki’s squad back on top for good with a pair of scores over the next minute and a half of game time. A shot from downtown by Robinson’s Marion Ward would keep things interesting early, but Joyner would answer back immediately with his own basket from beyond the arc to punctuate the kind of game this team was going to play that night. From there, the home team raced out to a 17-5 lead before the away team fought back with a pair of midrange jumpers by Junior Dylan Russell and a layup from Ward. The quarter ended with the home team sporting a less comfortable 19-11 lead heading into the second frame. In between periods, the medical staff was out on the court for about 10 minutes of real-time treating Knights’ Sophomore Jordan Mickens, who went down with an apparent head injury near his eye. After being helped to his feet, he walked over to the sideline under his own power and appeared to be in good spirits.
Junior Tykel Williams would quickly put to rest any concerns the home crowd may have had in the first minute of quarter number two as he rebounded a duo of missed shots by teammates and turned them into a pair of baskets. Central would go on to outscore Robinson 16-6 in the second quarter to take a 35-17 lead heading into the intermission. The Bears’ lead would balloon even further with 29 points in the penultimate frame. The evening was punctuated by Freshman Ethan Bergantino, who made a spin move inside and was fouled as he made a layup with 30 seconds left in the third. While the home crowd roared at this play, the cheering would reach its crescendo seconds later. As time expired in the quarter, Bergantino lofted up a shot from way downtown over the outstretched hands of a defender. As it fell through the net, chants of “he’s a freshman” rang out from the Central student section as the home team took a 64-28 lead into the final period. An uneventful fourth quarter ensued as backups replaced the starters, and the game reached its 68-33 conclusion. With the commanding way the home team dispatched their quarterfinal opponent, the Bears’ head coach felt that not any one player stood out as the squad rode a team effort to victory.
Central High, 2, Jeroen Watson shoots over a Robinson defender in the home 4A Regional Quarterfinal match against visiting Robinson High. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
The litany of Bears players that went off for double digits includes Villarroel with 10, Daniel scoring 12, Joyner with 10, Williams making 12, and Caden Bergantino rounding out the group with 12 points of his own. While Robinson’s season is over, the Bears advance to the region semifinals, where they will face the two-seed Gateway Eagles (18-6) on Tuesday. The Eagles are coming off of a 13-point victory over the seventh-seeded Lemon Bay Manta Rays (15-10) that took place at the same time as Central’s contest on Thursday. The Bears will hope to stay fresh and avoid becoming too fatigued if they wish to move past the Eagles to the region finals.
“I think as we go through the playoffs, we’re going to face more pressure,” Coach Zandecki said. “So, we got to be able to handle the pressure. I think we went through some spells today. We got a little fatigued. We made lazy passes, and as you go on into the playoffs, those are going to be slam dunks and easy points. If we can keep our opponents in a half-court game, I think that we have a good chance.”