Tuesday, Jul 22, 2014
Nature Coast

NCT, Eastside meet in region final once again

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On Saturday, Nature Coast returns to the scene of its greatest triumph - and hopes to do it all over again.

The Sharks (22-7) will make the trip to Alachua County to face Gainesville-Eastside (23-6) in the Class 5A, Region II final at 7 p.m.

Two years ago in this same round, Nature Coast captured its first regional crown by defeating the host Rams, 52-39.

That was a much different Shark squad, although the leading scorer that night was a sophomore named Rohan Blackwood, who totaled 19 points.

Now a senior, Blackwood's return to the court after missing 18 games during the regular season has helped spur Nature Coast to its fourth Elite Eight appearance in five years.

"I was talking to him (Thursday) in practice," Nature Coast head coach Dave Pisarcik said of Blackwood. "He said we've got to go back there and do the same thing. That's what our mindset has been since Tuesday.

"We're going there to win. The guys are excited about what we've accomplished so far this season, but we want to win this one."

For the rest of the team, however, this is the first time in the Eastside gym, and the Sharks will face a Rams squad fresh off a 76-72 overtime victory over Citrus on Tuesday.

Nature Coast lost to Citrus twice this season, 83-76 and 60-48, though both times without Blackwood. The Sharks are 11-0 when the two-time All-County power forward plays.

To illustrate his impact, his 19 points, 10 rebounds and three steals in Tuesday's 70-56 win over Tarpon Springs were pivotal in reversing an earlier 53-50 loss to the Spongers.

In matching up with the Rams, his presence could be even more vital. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Blackwood figures to go up against Eastside's 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior Barry Johnson.

"He's definitely a wide body," Pisarcik said. "Once he gets the ball on the block, he's scoring or he gets fouled. He's very key to their offense. If he doesn't get the ball, he's getting the rebound."

Like Blackwood, Johnson is the lone returning starter for the Rams from that regional final in 2012, though two other players, junior point guard Thomas Lundy and 6-foot-5, 225-pound senior center Seth Brown, did play.

Lundy was actually Eastside's leading scorer that night with 13 points, knocking down four 3-pointers.

The Rams also have 6-foot-7, 215-pound junior forward Mike Nobles, who paced the team with 35 blocked shots through the regular season.

Combined, Johnson, Brown and Nobles collected 423 rebounds in the regular season. In other words, Eastside has some considerable size on the interior, which made it a difficult matchup for Citrus.

Nature Coast should have better luck in that department, countering with Blackwood, 6-foot-5 Cody Bergantino (8.6 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.1 blocks in the regular season), and 6-foot-7 Darius Jones (4.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.6 blocks).

But Pisarcik cautioned that the Rams are also athletic and quick, and possess the same kind of airtight defense that they have in the past.

"If we can match their athleticism; it's going to be tough to keep them out of transition," Pisarcik said. "I think we definitely want to play our type of game. They want to push the ball. We want to slow it down to where we can execute our offense and then when we have a chance to run we'll push it."

Eastside is attempting to advance to the Final Four for the first since winning a state championship in 2006.

The Rams won the 5A-District 5 title from Ocala-Lake Weir, a team they lost to twice in the regular season by a combined six points.

After taking care of Dunnellon in the regional quarterfinals, they survived a thriller versus Citrus.

It was a game in which neither team led by more than four points, the final margin. Johnson had 18 points and 13 rebounds, scoring 15 in the opening half.

The Hurricanes were able to tally 17 steals, but were badly outrebounded in the second half, 23-10.

Whether the Rams can continue that dominance on the glass against the Sharks' formidable frontline will be pivotal in what figures to be a bit of a slugfest between two defensive-minded squads.

The winner moves on to face either Cape Coral-Mariner or St. Petersburg-Lakewood in Friday's state semifinals at The Lakeland Center.

Only two previous Hernando County teams have ever advanced to the Final Four, Nature Coast two years ago and Springstead in 2009.

"I think the roles on our team are established and guys are understanding what they've got to do to succeed," Pisarcik said. "Guys are buying in. They're ready to go. We're playing our best basketball and hopefully we'll bring it to Gainesville on Saturday.

"I think the guys want to prove it (another Final Four trip) can be done again and they have the opportunity to do it Saturday. Hopefully we come out and execute and play Nature Coast basketball."

Can't make it to Gainesville? Follow @herntodaysports on Twitter or Hernando Today's Facebook page for live updates from the game.

cbernhardt@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5288

At a Glance

What - Class 5A, Region II final

Who - Nature Coast Sharks (22-7, 5A-7 champions) at Gainesville-Eastside (23-6, 5A-5 champions)

Where - Eastside High, 1201 Southeast 43rd St., Gainesville 1201 Southeast 43rd Street

When - Saturday at 7 p.m.

At Stake - A regional championship and a spot in Friday's state semifinals at The Lakeland Center against the St. Petersburg-Lakewood/Cape Coral-Mariner winner.

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