Sharks gain ‘sweet’ redemption over Bears

Photography by Cheryl Clanton

BROOKSVILLE – A week and a half earlier, Nature Coast experienced the only blemish on its season at the hands of county-rival Central.
Nothing will ever capture the district championship for the Sharks, but in a rematch in Tuesday night’s Class 6A, Region 2 boys basketball semifinal, they certainly made up for their one loss of 2016-17.
In front of a boisterous, standing-room-only crowd witnessing perhaps the most meaningful intercounty contest in Hernando County history, Nature Coast gained sweet redemption in the Sweet 16 with a 70-48 victory.
“Last time we played Central, it was a big game. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t an elimination game,” Nature Coast head coach Dave Pisarcik said. “Obviously, looking at the circumstances of tonight’s game, that was the biggest game of the year. I think any time you’re playing in an elimination game, you’ve got to understand some of the consequences that happen if you don’t come prepared and don’t win the game.
“Yeah, we were disappointed about the last game. But realistically, our job is to survive and advance. You play a team like Central, who’s good, four times, there’s only one game you can lose that ends your season. So, we’re very thankful to be able to come out with a win tonight.”
The Bears (21-10) had only advanced this deep in the postseason once before, back in 1997. But for the Sharks (27-1), this has become old hat. This was their seventh regional semifinal in the past eight seasons, and their fifth time moving on to the Elite Eight. On Friday, they’ll travel to Palatka for a 7 p.m. regional final.
“We’ll play anywhere,” Pisarcik said. “We went on the road (in the quarterfinals) versus a tough Zephyrhills team that pretty much was a playoff, battle-tested team. Central was having a great end of the year. This was a tough environment, but we’re used to it and that’s what we want. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Nature Coast's Robert McAfee shoots over the extended arm of Central's Brian Eck. Photo by Cheryl Clanton

This marked the first meeting of two county squads in a regional game, and the intensity and atmosphere were befitting of the occasion. Bleachers on both sides of the gym were packed, leaving many to stand and watch in the corners.
Despite the final margin, the game was quite competitive until the fourth quarter. Central opened up a quick lead in the first before Nature Coast bounced back for a 17-16 lead.
The second quarter played out in nearly identical fashion. The Bears started off on a 9-0 run with three straight 3-pointers, the last by Caleb Johnson with 5:45 left in the half for a 25-17 advantage.
Yet the Sharks rallied and took a 30-29 edge into the intermission when Robert McAfee hit two free throws with around a minute remaining.
Kaine McColley scored nine points to build Nature Coast’s lead to 46-41 after three quarters, and McAfee’s basket at 6:23 in the fourth pushed the lead to double figures, 52-42. Jordan Baxter hit four free throws on two trips to the charity stripe with just under three minutes to go, making it 60-44.
The Sharks ended up outscoring the Bears in the fourth, 24-7, a reversal of the district final when Central won the last period, 23-14, in a 67-59 triumph.
Central's Andrew Krienes goes up for a shot as Nature Coast's Jordan Baxter goes for the block. Photo by Cheryl Clanton

“We were talking at halftime, there’s a few plays that we have to make to be able to go to the Elite Eight,” Pisarcik said. “This is a lot bigger stage than a district game. We knew it and our guys responded.”
Johnson, the county’s leading scorer averaging 20.2 points per game coming in, was held to just six points on a pair of 3-pointers. Instead the Bears were led by Brian Eck with 15 points and Andrew Krienes with 14 points and nine rebounds.
“I think up to halftime it was so much like the district final, it was right in our game plan,” Central head coach Matt Zandecki said. “Then the third quarter we started taking some bad shots. We started putting them on the foul line. And then the fourth quarter it was a six-, seven-point game and then we started trying to take that eight-point shot.
“We’re still district champs. This one hurts, but they can’t take that away from us. We still get a trophy. Nature Coast is going for a regional championship, that was one of their goals. But we took away one of their goals, one of their goals was to win a district championship.”
Zandecki pointed to the disparity in free throw attempts, 30-10 in favor of the Sharks, as a major difference in the outcome.
McAfee scored 14 of his 18 points in the first half, while McColley posted 15 of his 21 points over the final two periods. Baxter added 14 points, nine boards and two blocks.
“We’re still playing, so it means a lot,” McColley said. “District championship was a tough loss. They knocked us down, but we knocked them out.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.

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