BROOKSVILLE - For much of the season, Class 5A, District 7 appeared to be a two-horse race between Nature Coast and Wesley Chapel.
But within the span of eight days, Hernando served notice that a new contender has emerged, first by stunning the Sharks on Jan. 16, 63-47.
That ended a 17-game Leopard losing skid to Nature Coast dating back to 2005, and was a precursor to Friday's meeting with the Wildcats.
Hernando used a balanced attack to hold off Wesley Chapel and clinch the second seed in the upcoming 5A-7 Tournament, earning a 61-52 victory.
Nature Coast had already sealed up the top seed Tuesday by beating the Wildcats (18-4 overall, 9-3 5A-7), who will be seeded third when they host the district tournament starting Feb. 3.
"I thought once we got away from some silly turnovers that we had there in the later half of the first quarter and into the second, we settled down, got the ball where we needed to get the ball, but more importantly, more than anything else, defense," Hernando head coach Jeff Laing said. "We've been on a pretty good run on defense.
"I thought we were able to get back out to a lead, make some free throws, made some good basketball decision at the end. Hey, we won."
In the first meeting between these schools on Dec. 17, the Leopards (11-4 overall, 10-2 5A-7) ran out to a 10-point lead through the first half, only to lose, 69-66.
They got off to a similar hot start in this one, going ahead 12-2 midway through the first quarter.
But the 'Cats battled back, as Carson Emery knocked down three of his four 3-pointers in the first quarter, and went ahead in the second by as much as three, 26-23.
Hernando held a 29-29 edge at the intermission, and outscored Wesley Chapel in the third, 10-4.
Suddenly the offense opened up on both sides in the fourth, as the two teams combined for 42 points.
The Leopards pushed their lead to 11, 49-38, on a Joel Wilson hook shot, yet the 'Cats would not go away.
Back-to-back basket late in the period by Emery cut the deficit to 51-49. However, Hernando immediately found Mike Jones for a fast-break layup on the other end.
Wilson hit on a pair of free throws with 53.3 seconds remaining to give the Leopards some breathing room, 55-49.
Jones led Hernando with 19 points and added seven rebounds. Mark Wilson scored 17 points with nine points, three assists and three steals.
"Just do anything we can to win. Just push it, get good shots and win the game," Mark Wilson of the team's mentality. "We're feeling pretty good. We're starting to play good together. We're jelling, playing a lot better than we were at the beginning of the season."
Also for the Leopards, Brian Duncan chipped in six points, seven assists, seven steals and two blocks, while Ra'Shaad Hart added nine points, nine rebounds and five steals.
"We started off rough but then we had to come together as a team," Hart said. "Had a lot of good baskets. I needed a little help on the boards, though."
Emery paced all scorers with 20. Marcus Hayne had 18 points and nine rebounds.
In reality, the difference in seeding may not have much of an impact. So long as neither of these teams stumbles in the district quarterfinals, they'll face in the semis.
"More than anything else it's just playing well," Laing said. "We want to start peaking at the end.
"I think we've got a great week set up for us with our last four games, Wesley Chapel, Springstead for the county championship, and then games against Lecanto and Citrus, who are very good teams in our area that I think will help prepare us in getting ready for the district tournament."
Hernando 61, Wesley Chapel 52
Qtr. Scoring 1 2 3 4
WC 13 15 4 20 - 52
HER 14 15 10 22 - 61
Wesley Chapel (52): Emery 8 0-0 20, Mejia 1 0-0 2, Hayne 6 6-8 18, Rodriguez 2 0-0 5, McCrary 1 0-0 2, Jennings 1 1-2 3, Derice 0 1-2 1, S. Schneidmiller 0 1-2 1, P. Schneidmiller 0 0-2 0, Joyner 0. Totals 19 9-16 52.
Hernando (61): J. Wilson 1 3-8 5, Jones 8 2-3 19, Hart 4 1-2 9, M. Wilson 7 3-5 17, Duncan 3 0-2 6, Maclachlan 2 0-2 5, Zayas 0 0-1 0. Totals 25 9-23 61.
Three-point field goals: WC 5 (Emery 4, Rodriguez); HER 2 (Maclachlan, Jones).
Total fouls: WC 19; HER 13.
Technical fouls: none.
Fouled out: none.
Records: Wesley Chapel (18-4 overall, 9-3 5A-7), Hernando (11-4 overall, 10-2 5A-7).