WESLEY CHAPEL - Nature Coast and Wesley Chapel came into Friday night both sporting unblemished slates, averaging 67 and 60.3 points respectively.
Adding in the recent trend of these teams advancing to regionals, and their shared spot atop the Class 5A, District 7 standings, these two figured to put on a high-scoring, entertaining show in their first meeting of the season.
Yet the game hardly played out that way, at least until the final minutes.
The host Wildcats stormed back late in what had been a rugged defensive struggle, only to see the Sharks come up with clutch shooting from beyond the arc and at the charity stripe, as they survived for a pivotal 47-43 victory.
"Anytime you play a good team like Wesley Chapel, no lead is really safe," Nature Coast head coach Dave Pisarcik said. "I knew they were going to make a run. Down in the waning seconds, Carlos (Clemente) hits that big three, and that was just a relief right there.
"Credit to Wesley Chapel; that was a hard-fought, tough, physical game. Credit to both teams, they played hard."
It was Clemente's 3-pointer with 1:59 remaining that broke a tie, and the Sharks (5-0 overall, 5-0 5A-7) never relinquished that lead.
"I was playing bad in the first half, but I have confidence and I just hit it," Clemente said. "I need to worry about my shot and keep working hard."
That frantic sprint down the stretch turned what appeared to be an easy Nature Coast triumph into a nail-biter.
Neither team even managed to dent the scoreboard until Theo Williams scored on a putback for Wesley Chapel (8-1 overall, 4-1 5A-7) at 4:21 in the first quarter.
Still, the Sharks managed to open up a 27-18 advantage by halftime, behind Jordan Burkes' seven points in the second quarter.
"I think Jordan got a couple transition buckets, got some easy ones. Then we got some stops," Pisarcik said. "It was a team effort. Everybody contributed."
Nature Coast also dominated on the glass, outrebounding Wesley Chapel, 35-23, paced by Darius Jones with 12 boards.
Still down nine, 38-29, heading into the fourth, Wesley Chapel rallied as Marcus Hayne provided eight of his team-high 15 points in the period.
Riyan McCrary's steal and subsequent layup knotted things up at 41 with 2:46 remaining.
When the 'Cats misfired on their next possession, Burkes grabbed the rebound and raced down the court, driving to the hole and finding Clemente open in the right corner.
"When I got it, I just wanted to push it so we could beat the team down the court, and then saw Carlos in the corner and that's our best shooter. So I gave it to him and he knocked it down," Burkes said.
Twice Burkes went to the foul line in the last 1:39, sandwiched around a hook shot by Hayne, and converted 3-of-4 critical free throws.
"It was real intense," Burkes said. "The crowd was yelling. In my head I was saying, 'I got to make these free throws, try to end this game because I don't want it to go to overtime.' I just wanted to finish the game off, and I did."
Burkes led the Sharks with 15 points, while Clemente added 10.
Nature Coast played without senior power forward Rohan Blackwood, a repeat All-County selection and the team's leading rebounder. Blackwood, who was in uniform and warmed up with his teammates, didn't see the court because he was sick, according to Pisarcik.
"It definitely sets a tone for the rest of the year," Pisarcik said. "Number one seed in our district I think is a pretty big deal; even in any district because it's sort of an easier route to the final game, and that's everybody's goal, to get to that final game in the district.
"But we've got a lot of work to do. We've got to play them again at our place and got to play them probably in the district (tournament), so it's going to be a tough ride the rest of the way out. We're looking forward to it. We know it's not going to be easy and we're up for the challenge."
Nature Coast 47, Wesley Chapel 43
Qtr. Scoring 1 2 3 4
NCT 11 16 11 9 - 47
WC 7 11 11 14 - 43
Nature Coast (47): Clemente 4 0-0 10, Bergantino 0 2-4 2, Da. Jones 1 0-0 2, Parker 1 0-0 2, Burkes 5 3-6 15, Do. Jones 4 0-0 8, Dudek 4 0-0 8, Crima 0, Carnegie 0. Totals 19 5-10 47.
Wesley Chapel (43): Emery 3 3-4 10, Williams 2 2-4 6, Hayne 6 3-4 15, Rodriguez 1 0-0 2, McCrary 2 2-2 6, Jennings 1 0-0 2, Joyner 1 0-1 2, P. Schneidmiller 0, Derice 0. Totals 16 10-15 43.
Three-point field goals: NCT 4 (Clemente 2, Burkes 2); WC 1 (Emery).
Total fouls: NCT 17; WC 13.
Technical fouls: none.
Fouled out: none.
Records: Nature Coast (5-0 overall, 5-0 5A-7), Wesley Chapel (8-1 overall, 4-1 5A-7).