Palatka’s press proves Sharks undoing

Photography by Cheryl Clanton

PALATKA – As his players filed out of a postgame locker room one last time, Nature Coast boys basketball head coach Dave Pisarcik made it clear he saw this season as a success.
There was no shame in what the Sharks had accomplished, going undefeated in the regular season and advancing to the Elite Eight for the fifth time in eight seasons.
But the way things played out in Friday night’s Class 6A, Region 2 final at Palatka figures to leave a bitter taste for some time. Visiting Nature Coast had ample opportunity to pull out a victory down the stretch, yet had difficulty handling the Panthers’ pressure defense and ultimately suffered a 50-43 defeat.
“The opportunity was there. I think if we make a few more plays, don’t turn the ball over, miss some free throws,” Pisarcik said. “But that’s what this game brings. Athleticism, speed; stuff that you can’t simulate, that any team from Hernando County can simulate.
“We were right there with a chance to win. I would say that the defensive pressure, it’s tough.”
Palatka (22-8) went on a 6-0 run to end the first quarter, then extended it to a 13-3 surge to build a 22-14 advantage in the second, and from there the Sharks (27-2) seemed to perpetually play catchup.
Nature Coast cut the deficit to 22-19 by halftime and trailed just 36-35 at the end of third before Kaine McColley scored on a putback to provide a 37-36 edge to open the fourth.
The Panthers quickly responded and built their lead back to 45-40 on a free throw by Chamar Dumas with 3:01 to play. Robert McAfee sank a 3-pointer for the Sharks to make in a three-point contest, and that would be the last field goal from either team.
Despite the lack of scoring, Palatka controlled time of possession late. In the final minute, the Panthers twice missed the front end of a one-and-one only to grab the offensive rebound, with Tyrius Thomas finally knocking down a pair from the charity stripe to make it 47-42 with 39.8 seconds left.
Forced to heave up desperation shots from beyond the arc and continually foul the Panthers, Nature Coast failed to muster a final season-saving rally, as Palatka celebrated a trip to the Final Four in Lakeland.
Thomas paced the Panthers with 17 points, while McColley led the Sharks with 16. McAfee added 11 points and Anthony Valante had 10 for Nature Coast, and Jordan Baxter pulled down 15 rebounds.
With McColley, Baxter and Valante all set to graduate in a few months, this marked the end of an impressive run for this core group.
“Before the season, this was our goal, get to the Elite Eight. And whatever happened here, we have to live with,” Pisarcik said. “Whether we win this game or not is a toss-up. Did we have an opportunity? Yeah, for sure. But we didn’t make enough plays and we didn’t handle the ball well enough to win this game.
“I think the season, you’ve got to be happy. When we look back, we’re 25-0 in the regular season. No other team in Nature Coast history did that. We were in the Elite Eight. We got here, and whatever happened, happened. That was our goal. So, we accomplished our goals.
“To go 25-0 during the regular season, that’s an accomplishment we didn’t think we were going to get, so that was a benefit. But we got to where we wanted to go in the postseason and that’s how Nature Coast seasons are judged.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.

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