LAND O' LAKES - Much has changed within the Nature Coast girls basketball program over 11 seasons, yet the same roadblock remains.
Not that the Lady Sharks' four previous attempts at advancing to a regional final had any real impact on Tuesday night's Class 5A, Region II semifinal at Land O' Lakes.
No, the Lady Gators' rugged interior defense combined with Nature Coast's cold outside shooting and poorly timed miscues had a lot more to do with the outcome.
Nevertheless, the Lady Sharks were once again stymied in the Sweet 16, as Land O' Lakes hung on for a 46-40 victory.
"Land O' Lakes played a better game," Nature Coast head coach Emily Gore said. "They executed their game plan perfectly. We didn't do what we knew we needed to do, and you can tell. The score's 40-46. That's what they like. Keep it low."
Interestingly, the Lady Sharks (23-4), coming off a 58-55 win over Gulf in last Thursday's quarterfinals, fell to a Land O' Lakes (23-4) squad that had lost three times to Gulf, including the 5A-District 8 title game.
The difference might have come down to matchups. The Lady Gators had enough interior size to counter Nature Coast junior center Rita Jarque.
"They really neutralized Rita," Gore said. "Rita did not have her normal game. And then we couldn't make outside shots to really pull their defense out and stretch them out."
In the end Jarque had her usual double-double, with 10 points and 15 rebounds, but Land O' Lake center Taylor McDonald responded with 20 points and nine boards, and Jhade Hayes added nine points, nine rebounds and three steals.
"We adjusted our forwards and our centers. We really focused on knowing where their big kids were," Land O' Lakes head coach Phyllis Crain said. "All those down-low kids really had to play well and know where their personnel were; they (the Lady Sharks) like to sneak behind.
"We had to really know where (Jarque) is. She's a great player. She averages 18 (points), 16 (rebounds) a game. We just really had to focus on her and know where their shooters and everything are. We just really played zone to try to shut down that inside game."
The Lady Gators grinded to a 20-15 lead by halftime, and truly took command in the third, at one point building a 33-21 advantage.
That lead swelled to 14, 37-23, early in the fourth period before Nature Coast began to chip away.
Yet so many times when the Lady Sharks had chances to pull closer down the stretch, they committed a turnover or simply missed a good look at the hoop.
"We switched up our defense in the second half," Gore said. "We came out in man. We knew we had to keep a lot of pressure on them because they'll slow it down, slow it down, slow it down.
"We did some good things in the second half, but it seemed like at a crucial moment we would make a mistake that would hurt us. Turnover, taking a bad shot, things like that. I don't think we rebounded very well, either. I thought (Hayes) and (McDonald) for Land O' Lakes, I thought they outplayed us in the paint."
Fatima Jones contributed 13 points, five steals and four assists to the Lady Shark cause, and her cousin Mirandas Jones tallied five steals of her own.
Point guard Makala Canada added nine points, three assists, three steals and two blocks, and Pamela Andrade five steals for the Lady Gators, who will face Citrus in Saturday's 5A-II final.
Nature Coast had faced Citrus three times in the regular season, defeating the Lady Hurricanes in the last meeting on Jan. 8, 52-43.
That made a Final Four appearance a distinct possibility. Instead Nature Coast will have wait until next season, and the good news is that none of the five starters are seniors.
"Obviously if the girls are willing to put in some effort in the offseason and work hard, we can be better," Gore said. "If we stay committed to our team, if we can stay lucky and be injury-free, if everything falls into place we want to be right back here next year. Elite Eight, definitely that'll be our goal."
Land O' Lakes 46, Nature Coast 40
Qtr. Scoring 1 2 3 4
NCT 8 7 8 17 - 40
LOL 10 10 13 13 - 46
Nature Coast (40): Harris 2 1-2 5, Sesler 1 2-6 4, Jarque 4 2-5 10, F. Jones 3 6-6 13, M. Jones 2 0-0 6, Jarman 1 0-0 2, Liles 0, Tyson 0, Hurtado 0. Totals 13 11-19 40.
Land O' Lakes (46): Andrade 3 0-2 6, Hayes 3 3-9 9, McDonald 9 2-2 20, Canada 3 3-4 9, Kraning 1 0-0 2, Gregory 0, Thompson 0. Totals 19 8-17 46.
Three-point field goals: NCT 3 (M. Jones 2, F. Jones); LOL 0.
Total fouls: NCT 18; LOL 18.
Technical fouls: none.
Fouled out: none.
Records: Nature Coast (20-5), Land O' Lakes (23-4).
Class 5A, Region II
Nature Coast 58, Gulf 55
Land O' Lakes 39, Pasco 34
Citrus 46, Citra-North Marion 18
Gainesville-Eastside 67, Crystal River 51
Land O' Lakes 46, Nature Coast 40
Citrus 42, Eastside 30
Land O' Lakes at Citrus, 7 p.m.