BROOKSVILLE - Throughout the first quarter Tuesday night, Nature Coast looked the part of a slumping team that had gone 4-5 over its past nine games.
Then the Sharks turned up the defense, and locked up the top seed in the upcoming Class 5A, District 7 Tournament.
Facing Wesley Chapel for the second time this season with first place in the district on the line, the host Sharks held on for a 38-32 victory.
The visiting Wildcats (17-3 overall, 9-2 5A-7) built an 18-12 lead through the first period, then were limited to 14 points total the rest of the way.
"You look at our first game against them (47-43 win Dec. 13), low-scoring game," Nature Coast head coach Dave Pisarcik said. "Wesley Chapel, I said it when we played them before; they're one of the best man-defensive teams that we've seen all year. And we've played 22 games and I still think the same thing. So we knew it was going to be low-scoring. We're trying to value possessions and understanding how important each possession was.
"I think this is a big win for us. We've won some games in the last 10 games or so but we haven't won like we wanted to. We weren't playing like we're supposed to play, like a championship team. I think the guys are starting to buy in to what it takes to win a championship and hopefully we can carry it over to the districts."
Last Thursday, the Sharks (15-6 overall, 10-1 5A-7) suffered a 63-47 loss at Hernando, breaking their 33-game county win streak and putting a dent in their district record.
However, by sweeping the season series with the 'Cats, Nature Coast secured the top seed in the 5A-7 Tournament at Wesley Chapel in two weeks regardless of the outcome of Friday's Wesley Chapel-Hernando contest.
Even if the Sharks fall in their final 5A-7 game Friday at Central, they own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the 'Cats.
Since they split the season series with Hernando (9-2 5A-7), a loss to the Bears combined with a Leopards' victory on Friday would force the second tiebreaker, best record versus the highest-seeded district team, and proceeding through the lowest-seeded team.
In that case, Hernando's previous loss to Wesley Chapel would hand first place to Nature Coast.
"We knew it was a big game," Pisarcik said. "We knew we wanted to put ourselves in the best position possible in the district. But if you look at the past, it always found a way to work itself out.
"We've just got to take what comes at us. We're going to have to be prepared and be ready and play that game. We obviously want the easier road, but in the districts anything can happen. We've got to be focused and got to be prepared no matter who we play."
Early on Tuesday, the hot outside shooting of Carlos Clemente kept the Sharks in the game.
He hit four of his five 3-pointers in the first half, including two in a row to put Nature Coast in front in the second quarter, 21-18, part of a 12-0 run in which he accounted for nine of the points.
That was the score at halftime, as Wesley Chapel failed to tally a point in the second period.
Yet the game remained close the rest of the way. When the Sharks opened up a six-point edge in the fourth quarter, it felt bigger given the 'Cats' limited offensive production.
A Brian Rodriguez layup with 1:48, though, pulled Wesley Chapel within one, 33-32.
At the 1:07 mark, Nature Coast responded when Jordan Burkes drove into the paint and found Darius Jones for a critical layup.
Burkes would go on to knock down a free throw, and finished with a solid all-around line, seven points, six rebounds, five steals and four assists, and was particularly active defending the perimeter.
"Our main focus was to be tough and play harder than the other team," Burkes said. "Force them to the left hand and just keep them in front of us, and that gave me a couple steals. Once we got steals, it just fired us up.
"I saw the game was getting close (before the assist to Jones) and we were starting to get a little scrambled, so I had the ball in my hand and I just cleared everybody out and I just wanted to put the team on my back."
Clemente finished with 17 points and three steals. Cody Bergantino added nine rebounds. Marcus Hayne led Wesley Chapel with 11 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.
Nature Coast 38, Wesley Chapel 32
Qtr. Scoring 1 2 3 4
WC 18 0 7 7 - 32
NCT 12 9 6 11 - 38
Wesley Chapel (32): Emery 1 0-1 2, Mejia 0 1-2 1, Hayne 5 1-1 11, Rodriguez 4 1-1 10, McCrary 2 0-0 4, Derice 2 0-0 4, Jennings 0, Joyner 0, P. Schneidmiller 0. Totals 14 3-5 32.
Nature Coast (38): Clemente 5 2-2 17, Bergantino 2 0-2 4, Da. Jones 3 0-0 6, Parker 0 2-3 2, Burkes 2 3-6 7, Dudek 1 0-0 2, Do. Jones 0. Totals 13 7-13 38.
Three-point field goals: WC 1 (Rodriguez); NCT 5 (Clemente 5).
Total fouls: WC 14; NCT 10.
Technical fouls: none.
Fouled out: none.
Records: Wesley Chapel (17-3 overall, 9-2 5A-7), Nature Coast (15-6 overall, 10-1 5A-7).