Central rallies late, heads to Sweet 16 vs. Sharks

Photography by Cheryl Clanton

BROOKSVILLE – Central High had waited 20 years to see its boys basketball team host a regional playoff game.
Appropriate, then, that at times Thursday night it felt as though the home fans were producing two decades worth of noise.
In front of a large and often deafening crowd, the Bears mounted a furious rally in the final 3:30 of the fourth quarter in their Class 6A, Region 2 quarterfinal, erasing a seven-point deficit and knocking off visiting Ridgewood, 78-74.
“I got a lot of tough kids,” Central head coach Matt Zandecki said. “It’s not pressure for them. With these kids, there’s pressure when they go home now, whatever the circumstances they go through. So, this is basketball, having fun. I think that’s what’s been our motto the whole season.”
The Bears (21-9) hadn’t even advanced to regionals since 2004, but shocked undefeated Nature Coast in last week’s district tournament final at Citrus to claim their first district title since 1997. That was Zandecki’s sophomore season playing for Central, and he and his teammates recorded the program’s only previous regional win, 63-62 over Interlachen.
Enjoying a home game thanks to their most recent district triumph, the current Bears didn’t disappoint. They came out on fire from beyond the arc, as Brian Eck knocked down a trio of 3-pointers and Caleb Johnson added two more, that duo combining for 17 points in the first quarter.
However, the Rams (18-11) were equal to the task offensively, with Giovanni Charles scoring 12 points and Darrin Bright chipping in eight in the second quarter. Central carried a 46-45 lead into halftime after Johnson ran down an offensive rebound and found Travis Norwood for a buzzer-beating basket.
Johnson, who had 19 first-half points, scored six early in the third to build a 54-48 advantage.
“I hit my first shot and I knew they were playing a little lazy, so I just kept taking it to them,” Johnson said.
Central head coach Matt Zandecki communicates with Sam Garner during Thursday night's contest. Photo by Cheryl Clanton

Ridgewood responded, the 6-foot-5, 370-pound Bright exhibiting footwork that belied his massive frame on back-to-back spinning layups, making it 58-56 in favor of the Rams heading into the fourth.
Sam Garner briefly put the Bears back in front on two straight putbacks, then Bright scored seven points during a 12-3 run to give the Rams a 70-63 lead with 3:30 remaining.
A basket by Andrew Krienes preceded a huge 3-pointer from Johnson to make it 70-68 with 2:54 to play.
“That gave us momentum to go and once I hit that shot I knew we had a chance,” Johnson said. “I was going to take the shot anyway, if the guy was playing on me or not.”
Two free throws by Krienes tied it up, and Garner put back in his own miss to give Central the lead with 2:10 on the clock. A three-point play by Eck off a block by De’Vonta Smith opened up a 75-70 advantage at the 1:49 mark.
From there the Bears held Ridgewood in check and made just enough free throws, Eck icing the game making 1-of-2 from the charity stripe with 6.4 seconds to go for a four-point margin.
“They’re a good team and I think the third quarter they kind of dictated tempo. We got very, very sloppy. Playing in front of a big crowd like that, we didn’t communicate very well,” Zandecki said. “When we faced the pressure, with the lack of communication, I think that hurt us. But the boys stepped up, and I think when we went to our pressure I think that was a change in the game. De’Vonta had a couple tips. And I’m proud of the boys. I don’t think we particularly played well today, but we found a way to win.”
Central's Brian Eck battles for the ball against two Ridgewood players. Photo by Cheryl Clanton

Bright paced the Rams with 20 points and five rebounds. Will Dawson contributed 18 points, Charles had 17 and Josh Vail finished with 10.
While Eck posted 15 points and six rebounds, Garner added 10 points and six boards, Krienes had eight points and 10 rebounds, and Johnson ended up with a game-high 30 points to lift the Bears into a rematch with Nature Coast in Tuesday’s semifinals.
“It didn’t mean anything to me unless I got the win tonight,” Johnson said. “That’s what I wanted, to win with my teammates, go to the Sweet 16 and have a good battle against Nature Coast.”
The Rams were missing their leading scorer, junior guard Ty Quiroz, who suffered a foot injury in districts. Central played without sophomore point guard Kaylyl Headen due to injury.
Smith started in place of Headen and was a huge factor on the defensive end, showing off remarkable athleticism and leaping ability with six blocks.
“Those are just hustle plays,” Zandecki said. “The running plays I think got our crowd into it. I don’t think we win without our crowd. It was a good atmosphere. Looking forward to Tuesday.
“We’re district champs. They’re going to have that bitter taste in their mouths and they want to go to the Elite Eight. That’s what’s going to save their season. They’re not going to want us to beat them twice. I think that would wreck their whole season. So, they’re going to have extra motivation. It’s going to be a hell of a game.”
Nature Coast locked up its spot in that contest by traveling to Zephyrhills and capturing a 53-48 victory on Thursday night. Kaine McColley scored 18 points, followed by Jordan Baxter with 14 and Anthony Valante with 10.
The Sharks (26-1) led 30-17 with just under three minutes left in the first half, but the Bulldogs (17-10) pulled within 38-36 in the third quarter. McColley’s two free throws with 4.2 seconds remaining sealed the win.
“I think we started off really well, especially being on the road in a playoff game against a team that’s a year removed from the Final Four. We knew it’d be a tough game,” Nature Coast head coach Dave Pisarcik said. “We started off pretty well and Zephyrhills is a good team. We knew they’d make a run. We were fortunate to make plays, enough plays to win the game.
“Realistically, the season started for us right now. This is where we judge the success of our season. To win and survive and advance to get back to the Sweet 16, we’re happy to be there.
“We’re expecting the same type of game (as the district final). They’re going to play hard, we’re going to play hard. It’s whoever makes the most plays. Them being at home will be an advantage. Hopefully we make enough plays to beat them this time.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.

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