TARPON SPRINGS - An 18-1 run to open the second half powered Tarpon Springs' 70-60 Class 5A, Region II quarterfinal win over visiting Hernando High.
The final marks the Spongers' first regional success since 1947 and extends Hernando's drought another year. The Leopards' last win came in 1967.
"Sixty-seven years," said Tarpon Springs coach Jerry Woodka. "This community deserves it. I'm so happy for these kids and my school."
Dooming Hernando (15-7) and its young roster was an inability to hold onto the momentum it carried into the break, up 35-28.
"We obviously squandered the seven-point lead," Leopards coach Jeff Laing said. "But with a 10-point ballgame in the end, I think we'll look back and see that we had some missed layups, missed free throws that all of a sudden changed the game."
For Tarpon Springs (27-3), taking care of the ball and rededicating itself to the post at both ends keyed its third-quarter surge.
"We stopped the fast breaks, rebounded a lot better and just played better defense in general," said Spongers junior Scottie James, who finished a blocked shot short of a triple-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and nine blocks.
The Leopards and Joel Wilson (team-high 21 points) repeatedly gashed Tarpon Springs - either off Spongers' turnovers or pushing after defensive rebounds - with quick transition buckets in the first half.
Issues with finishing many of those same opportunities in the final 16 minutes allowed Tarpon Springs to grab the lead early in the third and eventually retain it for good.
Joel Wilson was joined by his brother, Mark, in double digits in scoring with 18 points.
Outside of James, the Spongers were led by junior point guard Trai Halton's 21 points and 16 from senior Mitch Wilcox.
Halton brought fans to their feet on a number of occasions with his skillful ball-handling, slashing drives and pull-up jumpers.
"It helps because coach lets me play my game," Halton said. "If I'm feeling my shot, I don't have to hesitate to shoot it. I just feel more confident."
Tarpon Springs now moves on to play Nature Coast on Tuesday night in Brooksville. The teams met in the championship game of the Nature Coast Christmas Tournament won by the Spongers, 53-50.
Thursday represented Hernando's first trip to regionals since 2004, and though it didn't end with the desired result, Laing said he's optimistic about the future.
"I think after this season the future looks bright for us," he said. "We've got to look back at this loss and see what we can learn from it."
Tarpon Springs 70, Hernando 60
Qtr. Scoring 1 2 3 4
HER 17 18 9 16 - 60
TS 21 7 23 19 - 70
Records - Hernando (15-7), Tarpon Springs (27-3).