BROOKSVILLE - For much of the season, Nature Coast had to find a way to win without Rohan Blackwood.
The Sharks, showing their resourcefulness, were more times than not successful making up for the absence of their two-time All-County power forward.
But that wasn't the case Dec. 30, when Tarpon Springs pulled out a 53-50 victory in the final of the Nature Coast Christmas Tournament.
When those two squads met again in Tuesday's Class 5A, Region II semifinals, Blackwood was back, and helped the Sharks return to the Elite Eight.
The senior USF football signee used his athleticism and physicality in the paint to turn the tables, accounting for 19 points, 10 rebounds and three steals in a 70-56 triumph.
"Rohan's definitely a difference-maker," Nature Coast head coach Dave Pisarcik said. "But watching a lot of film on them, we tried to get those areas to attack. Guys made shots tonight."
The Sharks (22-7) will travel to Gainesville-Eastside for Saturday night's 5A-II final at 7 p.m., making their fourth regional final appearance in five seasons.
Against Tarpon Springs (27-4) they used a smothering defense and balanced effort to build a big lead early, then withstood a late rally.
While Blackwood and Cody Bergantino made plays on the interior, Nature Coast received a surprising contribution off the bench from Ryan Doherty.
A transfer from Mitchell, he knocked down three 3-pointers in the second quarter, helping to build a 31-18 advantage at the intermission.
Pisarcik said that the plan was to key in defensively on forward Scottie James and point guard Trai Halton. Before James knocked down a pair of shots from beyond the arc late in the half, those two had combined for nine points over the first two quarters.
The lead swelled to 40-22 midway through the third when a dunk by Damarian Gulley seemed to awaken Tarpon Springs.
The deficit was cut to six, 50-44, before baskets by Jordan Burkes and Blackwood put Nature Coast back in front by double figures.
Down the stretch it became a march to the free throw line for the Sharks. They converted 18-of-24 from the charity stripe, with Burkes hitting on 11-of-14.
"Sometimes when you've got a lead like that and you're not trying to force things, you sort of get passive and you turn the ball over and you're not playing any defense," Pisarcik said. "Some of our seniors stepped up and made some plays and made just enough to keep it out of reach until they started fouling."
Burkes had to become a go-to guy late as leg cramps limited leading scorer Carlos Clemente's ability to stay on the court.
"I knew Carlos was cramping up, so I just had to shoot free throws, come up big for my team and send us to the Elite Eight," said Burkes, a senior who transferred in this school year from Tampa Catholic.
"This is huge. My whole dream was trying to get to Lakeland (for the state finals), and we're one game away from going there. We've just got to stay focused, work hard in practice and just got to continue getting better."
James did score 21 points, featuring four 3-pointers, while grabbing 11 rebounds. Halton added 11 points, five assists and five steals, though he fouled out with 2:28 left and his team trailing 54-47. Mitch Wilcox chipped in 13 points, eight rebounds and three steals.
Along with Blackwood, the Sharks were paced by Burkes (16 points, six rebounds, three steals), Bergantino (10 points, seven rebounds, three steals) and Clemente (10 points).
In spite of the ever-evolving nature of prep athletics, Nature Coast has managed to continue what was already an unprecedented run in county boys hoops history.
They now have 10 regional wins over that span. All other county schools have seven combined all-time.
"I think our program's committed," Pisarcik said. "We got people in our program, players and coaches that are committed. We're working hard. Players change, but the end result, we're still going to the Elite Eight, we're still winning district championships."
Nature Coast 70, Tarpon Springs 56
Qtr. Scoring 1 2 3 4
TS 6 12 18 20 - 56
NCT 14 17 15 24 - 70
Tarpon Springs (56): Wilcox 6 1-3 13, James 8 1-3 21, Atkins 1 0-0 2, Halton 3 3-4 11, Gulley 2 1-2 5, Jimenez 1 0-0 3, Lazzari 0 1-2 1, Turner 0, Taylor 0. Totals 21 7-14 56.
Nature Coast (70): Clemente 3 1-2 10, Bergantino 3 4-5 10, Da. Jones 1 0-0 2, Parker 1 2-3 4, Burkes 2 11-14 16, Blackwood 8 3-4 19, Doherty 3 0-0 9, Crima 0, Do. Jones 0, Carnegie 0. Totals 21 21-28 70.
Three-point field goals: TS 3 (James 4, Halton 2, Jimenez); NCT 7 (Doherty 3, Clemente 3, Burkes.
Total fouls: TS 22; NCT 13.
Technical fouls: none.
Fouled out: Halton, Gulley (TS).
Records: Tarpon Springs (27-4), Nature Coast (22-7).
Class 5A, Region II
Nature Coast 56, Gulf 43
Tarpon Springs 70, Hernando 60
Citrus 64, Ocala-Lake Weir 55
Gainesville-Eastside 69, Dunnellon 57
Nature Coast 70, Tarpon Springs 56
Eastside 76, Citrus 72 (OT)
Nature Coast at Eastside, 7 p.m.