The Hernando Leopards (5-7) battled back and emerged victorious over the Nature Coast Tech Sharks (4-4) by a razor thin 37-36 margin at the Shark Tank on Tuesday night. Both teams were 2-2 in their last four matchups, but each squad got there a little differently. Nature Coast’s season was going more swimmingly than Hernando’s, but Head Coach Jake Gaustad and the Leopards flipped the script on their intra-county foe that evening.
“Oh, man. It is always good to get a big win against our county rival,” Coach Gaustad said. “The kids – it has been a rough couple of weeks, but they have been fighting. The effort that we have been preaching and preaching in practice, they showed it. They were dogs out there. I am so proud of them.”
Nature Coast would jump out to multiple modest leads during the matchup including a game-high 11 points in the first half. Much to the home team’s chagrin, an early dry spell would portend the Sharks’ loss later on. The Leopards also proved unshakeable as they battled back time and time again to keep the game close before taking it at the end.
The Sharks’ night started strong with seven straight points in the first 1:04 of game time thanks to a pair of baskets by Senior PG/SG Sheldon Cotton and an open three-pointer by Junior G Jacob Mcphail. That is when the dry spell struck. For over four minutes, the team in white and Columbia Blue failed to sink a single shot. Despite this lull, the home team would maintain a slim 7-6 lead roughly 5 minutes in.
That is a credit to Head Coach David Pisarcik’s defense, as it would hold Hernando to their first of three quarters scoring in the single digits. The Leopards’ defensive efforts were similar as evidenced by the score, but they did most of their damage in the second half. In quarters three and four, the Purple and Gold matched the Sharks’ fire and limited them to a mere six and four points respectively.
“We knew they were going to come out with intensity,” said Coach Gaustad. “Nature Coast is always well-coached. They got a tough man-to-man. They are tough defensively. We knew it was going to be a struggle, but we knew we had to match their intensity and that they were up for the challenge.”
Offensively, the Leopards began to ignite when staring down a 20-9 deficit roughly two minutes into the second frame. It was a well-rounded effort by the visiting team to claw back into the game. Five separate Leopards outscored the Sharks 14-6 over 6:42 of clock that spanned halftime. One play was emblematic of this pivotal stretch. After three missed shots by Hernando during a second half possession, Senior G/F Leandre Wright was instrumental by diving and swatting the ball to another teammate for the visitors’ third straight rebound on offense. Seconds later, Sophomore G Joseph Rivera drained a trey to draw the Leopards to within three with most of the second half left to play.
“It was a team defense,” Coach Gaustad said. “They were switching their communication. I am so proud of them. It was a full team performance to get this one. There as tough to defend, Nature Coast, they have got great plays. The way that we played, we rallied together. I was very proud of them.”
The fourth quarter would prove to be a tight, low-scoring affair as the Sharks came into the final period with a three-point lead. After extending their lead to five under two minutes later, the home team would see their lead evaporate after a three-pointer by Senior G Josiah Wright and a three-point play Junior G/F Sam Jackson with 3:51 remaining. Seconds after Jackson sunk the and-one to give the Leopards their first lead of the night, Nature Coast appeared to take the lead back on a shot from downtown by Cotton. It was called back, though. Cotton would later make a layup with under two to go, but Leandre Wright would respond with a layup of his own with one minute left. This gave Hernando the lead for good as they were able to salt away the rest of this critical cross-county contest.
Looking ahead to the next matchups, the Sharks will face off against the Fivay Falcons in a mid-season Christmas Tournament. Coach Pisarcik and company will look to get back on track against the Falcons on Thursday December 28. The Leopards and Coach Gaustad will hope to win their fourth of six games when they host the Hudson Cobras on Thursday later this week.