NEW PORT RICHEY - Somehow Nature Coast's top players found a way to stay on the court - and in the lead - as the final minutes ticked down Thursday night.
Facing host Gulf in a Class 5A, Region II quarterfinal, with four starters on the verge of fouling out and the Lady Buccaneers producing a frantic comeback in front of their raucous home court, the Lady Sharks held on.
As Gulf's last chance to tie the game fell short and time expired, Nature Coast celebrated a 58-55 victory and its first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2009.
"We talked about our foul trouble at halftime," Nature Coast head coach Emily Gore said. "I told them that they have to stop fouling. They have to play the smartest second half of basketball they can with foul trouble. And they all stayed on the floor. I think it's almost a miracle to be completely honest.
"But we finally figured out right at the end that we could hold the ball, the clock was our friend, make them foul us, get to the line and we made just enough free throws to pull it out."
Unlike last Friday's 5A-District 7 championship game, when the top-seeded Lady Sharks (20-4) came out sluggish and ultimately lost to host Pasco, Nature Coast started strong.
Through the first quarter the Lady Sharks built a 17-11 lead and were up by double digits early in the second before Gulf (21-4) closed the half on an 11-1 run, trailing 27-24.
Nature Coast began to rebuild its advantage in the third, but by the end was severely testing its depth.
Center Rita Jarque, plus guards Fatima and Mirandas Jones and Emmalee Harris were all sitting on four fouls down the stretch.
Still, the Lady Sharks held a 44-35 edge heading into the fourth, and despite all five starters playing the entire final period, none of them fouled out.
The Lady 'Bucs' top scorer, Kayla Kivinski, scored 10 of her 20 points in the last quarter to spark Gulf's late rally.
Jalena Hawkins laid it in after collecting an offensive rebound to pull the home team within one, 52-51, with 2:35 left to play.
That's when Nature Coast's fifth starter, Latavea Sesler, came up clutch. On Gulf's next possession she snagged a loose ball poked away by a teammate and raced to the other end for a layup.
Mirandas Jones would then find Sesler open at the hoop for another critical bucket to push the Lady Sharks in front by three, 56-53.
"I had to help my team because I wasn't playing a very good game I don't feel," said Sesler, who finished with 11 points. "We work really hard at practice. We didn't win our (district) championship game. It put us down, but we had to come back and do what we had to do keep going, and we're happy now. We have to just work to beat the next team."
"I thought they were leaving Latavea alone all night," Gore said. "She's a sophomore for us; she's one of our quiet players. I don't think people really know how good of a basketball player she is. I told a couple of our girls 'Look for Latavea, because they're sagging off of her' and we finally did late."
Fatima Jones knocked down a pair of clutch free throws with 29.7 remaining to make it a five-point margin.
Gulf pulled within one possession, and had a shot to tie after a missed free throw by Nature Coast in the waning seconds.
However, in the frenzy the Lady Bucs could only muster a harmless long 2-pointer by Kivinski that hit the front of the rim as the final horn sounded.
"They're always a difficult matchup," Gulf head coach Clare Ennis said of Nature Coast. "Any team we play at this point in the season is going to be a very respectable team. We like to focus on our game, and doing our thing, and we didn't do everything we needed to do tonight. We definitely were looking to get certain things out of them and we got most of it, but then we didn't execute on our end."
Aside from Kivinski, who added nine rebounds and four steals, Hawkins chipped in 16 points and four steals.
Harris and Mirandas Jones both had 10 points and five boards for the Lady Sharks, and Fatima Jones posted eight points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals.
The junior Jarque produced her typical double-double, 16 points and 18 rebounds, plus two blocks.
"We're all excited," Jarque said. "Before this game we all had our heads in the game and were determined to beat them, and we knew if we stayed in our rotations and kept our composure we could do it."
On Tuesday Nature Coast will travel to Land O' Lakes, who stunned Pasco in another quarterfinal on Thursday, 39-34, for a 5A-II semifinal at 7 p.m.
"I'm not sure I can describe what that means," Gore said. "We talked about it. It was on our scouting report, Sweet 16 bound. I'm so proud of the girls. They found a way to win it and that's what matters most, they found a way."
Nature Coast 58, Gulf 55
Qtr. Scoring 1 2 3 4
NCT 17 10 17 14 - 58
GUL 11 13 11 20 - 55
Nature Coast (58): Harris 4 0-0 10, Sesler 5 1-4 11, Jarque 6 4-8 16, F. Jones 3 2-2 8, M. Jones 4 1-5 10, Liles 1 0-0 2, Tyson 0 1-2 1, Hurtado 0, Jarman 0. Totals 23 9-21 58.
Gulf (55): Kivinski 9 1-4 20, Hawkins 7 1-2 16, McCray 1 0-0 2, Julian 4 0-3 8, Cochrane 1 4-5 7, Summers 1 0-2 2, Crisafulli 0. Totals 23 6-16 55.
Three-point field goals: NCT 3 (Harris 2, M. Jones); GUL 3 (Hawkins, Cochrane, Kivinski).
Total fouls: NCT 18; GUL 16.
Technical fouls: none.
Fouled out: none.
Records: Nature Coast (20-4), Gulf (21-4).
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
Nature Coast at Land O' Lakes, 7 p.m.
Citrus at Eastside, 7 p.m.
Final, 7 p.m.