WESLEY CHAPEL - In an interesting twist, Hernando County's top two teams had to venture to Wesley Chapel High for their rubber match Friday night.
But this one wasn't just about bragging rights. There was the small matter of the Class 5A, District 7 championship on the line.
When Hernando and Nature Coast last met, the Leopards notched their first victory against the Sharks since 2005.
They could not, however, collect their first district title since 2001, as Nature Coast used a 14-1 fourth-quarter run to pull away for a 59-44 win.
For the Sharks (20-7), it was the third district crown in a row and fourth in five years, despite significant personnel losses each of the past two seasons.
"This year was more of a rollercoaster ride," Nature Coast head coach Dave Pisarcik said. "We never knew what we were going to get when we weren't consistent. But we had a great practice yesterday and guys know what it's going to take to win the big game.
"We always said it's tough to be a champion. Things aren't going to come easy. We've got to keep fighting, keep staying together and win as a team. That's why it's such a nice win for us because we did it together and we competed together."
Two things keyed Nature Coast: eight made 3-pointers, seven combined by Carlos Clemente and Jordan Burkes, and a 28-20 rebounding advantage.
Senior Rohan Blackwood posted a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Blackwood, a two-time All-County selection, missed 18 games in the middle of the season while trying to secure a football scholarship. He signed with USF on Wednesday.
The Sharks are 9-0 in the games he has played in, and he averaged 10.5 points and 12 boards in two 5A-7 Tournament contests.
"I did miss a lot of time. I missed it, so I came back. The team needed me, so I came here to win this thing," said Blackwood, a key part of each of those three consecutive district championship squads. "They couldn't stop me, so just keep on feeding me the ball, that's what I say. That's how we do things."
"Rohan's a leader. He's athletic and he's been here before," Pisarcik said. "He likes playing in this type of atmosphere and tonight he played well, he played great, and we're really excited that he's hitting his peak right now."
Hernando (15-6) led early, 12-8 after the first quarter, but Nature Coast knocked down four 3-pointers in the second, two by Burkes, to take a 25-18 lead into halftime.
Trailing by just two, 35-33, at the start of the fourth quarter, the Leopards knotted the score at 37 on a short hook by Ra'Shaad Hart with over six minutes to play.
That's when the Sharks went into another gear, putting together that big surge to make it 51-38 with less than two minutes remaining.
"Hernando's a great team, they're well-coached. So we knew they were going to come back," Pisarcik said. "The sense of urgency sort of changed. We knew we had to make good plays, take good angles to the basket and finish down there.
"Cody (Bergantino) and Rohan, huge for us down there; Burkes played well, Carlos played well. I think it was a great team win for us."
It was a collective effort. Clemente and Bergantino each had six points in the period, Blackwood added five and Burkes scored seven of his game-high 21 points, including a 5-of-6 effort from the free throw line in the quarter, as both he Clemente (3-of-4) were able to ice the game at the charity stripe.
"This is my first district championship trophy in my high school career, so it feels good, real special," said Burkes, a senior who transferred from Tampa Catholic. "I'm confident coming into this game, and I felt it the whole time in that run and I just knocked down shots. That's all that was."
Burkes added eight rebounds, five assists and three steals with three makes from beyond the arc. Clemente tallied 15 points, connecting on four treys.
Mike Jones paced Hernando with 15 points, and Hart had eight points, seven rebounds and two blocks.
"As far as rebounding, Nature Coast was the more aggressive team," Hernando head coach Jeff Laing said. "They were fighting and scrapping a lot more for those loose balls, so-called 50-50 balls, than what we were.
"We're a transition team, and we've got to get that rebound and go. We've done very, very well in transition. I thought tonight we did very well. We just didn't get that opportunity, and give Nature Coast credit for what they did fighting on the boards and keeping us away from that."
Still, the Leopards will move on to regionals for the first time since 2004, traveling to 5A-8 champ Tarpon Springs for a 5A-Region II quarterfinal Thursday at 7 p.m.
"I am so happy for these players," Laing said. "This loss should hurt, but we want to use this as a motivating factor. We win Thursday I think odds are we get to play Nature Coast again. Hey, survive and advance, we'll see what happens."
Nature Coast hosts 5A-8 runner-up Gulf in another Thursday semifinal, also at 7 p.m., and the Sharks know the season series with Hernando might not be over just yet
"This was our revenge game and our whole focus is to get to the Final Four in Lakeland, and we know that we have to get past them, either now and probably at another time in the Sweet 16," Burkes said. "So this is good coming up for our confidence."
Nature Coast 59, Hernando 44
Qtr. Scoring 1 2 3 4
HER 12 6 15 11 - 44
NCT 8 17 10 24 - 59
Hernando (44): Jones 6 3-7 15, Maclachlan 3 1-2 7, Hart 4 0-0 8, M. Wilson 2 1-1 5, J. Wilson 3 1-2 9, Duncan 0, Zayas 0, Carr 0. Totals 18 6-12 44.
Nature Coast (59): Clemente 4 3-4 15, Bergantino 4 0-0 8, Blackwood 4 4-6 12, Parker 0 0-1 0, Burkes 6 6-8 21, Crima 1 0-0 3, Da. Jones 0, Doherty 0. Totals 19 13-19 59.
Three-point field goals: HER 2 (J. Wilson 2); NCT 8 (Clemente 4, Burkes 3, Crima).
Total fouls: HER 20; NCT 14.
Technical fouls: none.
Fouled out: Duncan (HER).
Records: Hernando (15-6), Nature Coast (20-7).
Class 5A, District 7 Tournament
at Wesley Chapel
No. 2 Hernando 80, No. 7 Weeki Wachee 28
No. 5 Central 41, No. 4 Zephyrhills 30
No. 3 Wesley Chapel 50, No. 6 Pasco 31
No. 1 Nature Coast 43, Central 32
Hernando 53, Wesley Chapel 49
Nature Coast 59, Hernando 44