BROOKSVILLE - Prior to the start of this week's Hernando Holiday Classic, a few coaches expressed their belief that Nature Coast and Citrus were the teams to beat.
However, the bracket set up for them to meet in Friday's semifinals rather than in Saturday night's finale.
For their part the Lady Sharks were looking to avenge a 78-57 loss to the Lady Hurricanes on Nov. 21.
Nature Coast head coach Emily Gore hoped in the second go-round her team could avoid the foul trouble that plagued it in the previous meeting
No such luck.
The Lady Sharks were whistled for 29 fouls, resulting in a staggering 46 free throw attempts for the Lady 'Canes, yet still nearly pulled out a victory before falling, 57-53.
"We talked a lot about fouls and free throws," Gore said. "I know officiating is officiating, and there's nothing you can do to change that. You just have to play through it and adjust to it, and we don't do a very good job of that. We've got to figure that out."
Nature Coast (12-3 overall, 1-1 in tournament) was already at a deficit with point guard Fatima Jones starting the game on the bench.
The junior came into the tournament averaging 14.8 points, 3.4 assists and 4.3 steals, but is still recovering from a concussion sustained against Central on Dec. 17.
She would eventually enter the game with 4:37 to go in the fourth quarter, going scoreless in that brief appearance.
"We'll see how she feels after what she just did," said Gore, calling Jones day-to-day. "She was cleared, but she's still feeling some of the effects, so we might have to shut her down. I didn't want to play her tonight. The kids were begging for her to go in."
With 2:56 left in the first half, guard Emmalee Harris tweaked her previously injured left knee and had to be helped off the court. She never returned, and Gore was unsure of her status for Saturday's action.
Harris went down committing her fourth foul, one of 18 against the Lady Sharks over the first two quarters, allowing Citrus (14-1 overall, 2-0 in tournament) to go 18-of-30 from the charity stripe.
Somehow Nature Coast still managed to take a one-point lead into halftime, 31-30, behind 14 points by Mirandas Jones and eight by Rita Jarque.
Those two weren't done, combining for all 22 points scored by the Lady Sharks in the second half.
Jones totaled 27 points, knocking down five 3-pointers, to go with six rebounds and four steals. Jarque posted 17 points, a season-high 24 rebounds, five steals and three blocks.
"Mirandas played a heck of a game for us. She really carried us," Gore said. "Rita always carries us. And some of the other girls came in and stepped up."
The game was tied at 43 at the start of the fourth quarter, and Micah Jenkins scored 10 of her team-high 26 points in the final period to help the Lady 'Canes pull away.
Jarque fouled out with 2:07 remaining and the Lady Sharks trailing by four, 52-48. No longer having to contend with her in the paint, Citrus never relinquished its lead.
Jenkins benefitted most from the constant trips to the foul line, knocking down 16-of-20 free throws. Shally Morales went 7-for-11, and the Lady 'Canes finished a combined 30-of-46. These two teams face again at Nature Coast next Wednesday.
In the meantime, the Lady Sharks will play Plant City, who lost to West Palm Beach-King's Academy earlier Friday, 55-32, for third place Saturday at 5 p.m.
Following that game, Citrus will take on King's Academy for the tourney title, though in Gore's mind that contest already took place.
"I told a couple of the girls, 'This is our championship game.' And I thought we played really well," Gore said.
Also on Friday, Hernando defeated Fivay, 42-16, and Central beat South Sumter, 40-29, each bouncing back from opening-round losses.
The Lady Leopards (10-6) take on the Lady Bears (6-8) for fifth place on Saturday at 3 p.m.
Citrus 57, Nature Coast 53
Qtr. Scoring 1 2 3 4
NCT 13 18 12 10 - 53
CIT 12 18 13 14 - 57
Nature Coast (53): Harris 2 0-0 5, Liles 0, Jarque 6 5-6 17, M. Jones 10 2-3 27, Sesler 0 2-7 2, Williams 1 0-0 2, F. Jones 0 0-1 0, Tyson 0, Garcia 0, Jarman 0, Eberts 0. Totals 19 9-17 53.
Citrus (57): Martone 0, Simmons 3 3-7 9, Weaver 1 0-0 2, Jenkins 5 16-20 26, Toxen 3 4-8 11, Morales 1 7-11 9. Totals 13 30-46 57.
Three-point field goals: NCT 6 (M. Jones 5, Harris); CIT 1 (Toxen).
Total fouls: NCT 29; CIT 17.
Technical fouls: none.
Fouled out: Tyson, Jarque (NCT), Morales (CIT).
Records: Nature Coast (12-3 overall, 1-1 in tournament), Citrus (14-1 overall, 2-0 in tournament).
Hernando Holiday Classic
Plant City 35, Hernando 32
West Palm Beach-King's Academy 38, Fivay 30
Citrus 63, Central 44
Nature Coast 60, South Sumter 32
Hernando 42, Fivay 16
Central 40, South Sumter 29
King's Academy 55, Plant City 32
Citrus 57, Nature Coast 53
Fivay vs. South Sumter, 1 p.m.
Central vs. Hernando, 3 p.m.
Nature Coast vs. Plant City 5 p.m.
Citrus vs. King's Academy, 7 p.m.