GAINESVILLE - If Saturday night's boys basketball contest had been the start of a seven-game series, it'd be difficult to predict who would survive.
Unfortunately for visiting Nature Coast, the regional playoffs are a one-and-done situation.
The Sharks erased a 15-point deficit and seemed primed to clinch a Final Four berth in the Gainesville-Eastside gym for the second time in three years.
Yet somehow, the host Rams found a way, making the clutch shots, coming up with the pivotal loose balls and benefitting from Nature Coast miscues to escape with a 48-43 victory in the Class 5A, Region II final.
"Obviously we're disappointed," Nature Coast head coach Dave Pisarcik said. "I felt like we had a chance, great opportunities to be able to win the game. Sometimes that's just the way the ball bounces, though. We miss a few layups, we miss a few free throws, we miss some defensive assignments.
"It was definitely not one combination of something; it was a combination of a few things."
The game, a rematch of a regional final two years ago at the same venue won by the Sharks, 52-39, played out like the defensive struggle anticipated.
"Tonight, credit to Eastside-Gainesville," Pisarcik said. "They're athletic, they're quick; they made our offense difficult to get into and it was tough for us to execute. We didn't have no breathing room.
"I'm proud of our guys. We didn't give up. That's tough to be able to play against for 32 minutes. Our guys battled and competed and that's all you can ask for."
In the early stages it didn't appear the Sharks (22-8) could gain any sort of offensive traction against the Rams' (24-6) stifling interior defense.
Meanwhile, Eastside buried four 3-pointers in the first half, and built as much as a 22-7 advantage before Nature Coast sprung to life.
With Rohan Blackwood and Carlos Clemente combining for 10 points in the second quarter, the Sharks ended the half on a 12-2 run to pull within five, 24-19.
"It took us a while to get adjusted to their athleticism, and the speed and quickness of the game," Pisarcik said. "Once we adjusted a little bit and got some opportunities I felt we made the most of them.
"We tried to go back to our press a little bit. We tried to get them to be uncomfortable. Maybe get some easy layups, easy baskets or something. I thought when we went to a little bit of a press we got some easy transition points or we moved the ball or we could have some advantages when they weren't set up to play defense."
That momentum carried over out of the break. When Clemente stole the ball at midcourt and raced in for a layup, the game was tied at 25 at the 3:31 mark of the third.
Clemente's shot from beyond the arc put Sharks ahead for the first time, 30-27, moments later, and the score was knotted up at 34-all by the end of the period.
Eastside managed to build a modest four-point cushion at the beginning of the fourth quarter, and Nature Coast couldn't quite seem to get over that hump.
When Clemente knocked down another trey with 2:15 left to play, and the Rams were called for an intentional foul when Blackwood followed with a steal, the Sharks had their chance to grab control in the closing minutes.
Instead they failed to cash in on two free throws and the ensuing possession, and would never score again.
Point guard Thomas Lundy drilled a 3-pointer, the Rams' sixth overall, with 1:30 remaining, for what ended up being the biggest shot of the game.
Nature Coast misfired on two good looks in close as time continued to wind down, and was forced to send Eastside to the foul line on multiple occasions.
Blackwood ended up fouling out with 1:13 to go, finishing with 10 points, six rebounds and three steals.
He was part of a defensive effort in the paint that handcuffed the Rams' collection of big men, limiting standout Barry Johnson to four points and three boards.
Instead the backcourt stepped up, led by Lundy (17 points, six rebounds, two steals) and Darius Norman (12 points).
Eastside head coach Pop Williams said the key down the stretch was an increase in pressure and heavier focus on Clemente, who made just that one bucket in the fourth.
It resulted in the Rams' first trip to the Final Four since 2006.
"It feels good. I'm happy for the seniors and the younger kids so that they get that experience for once in their lives," Williams said. "I told them, we're just going to keep the pressure on defensively. That's what we like to do, play defense."
Nature Coast helped out going an uncharacteristic 3-of-10 from the charity stripe.
Clemente paced the Sharks with 19 points. Cody Bergantino added seven rebounds, four steals and two blocks, while Darius Jones blocked three shots.
Junior point guard Andrew Parker chipped in four assists and four steals, and is the only Nature Coast player to see the court in this game who isn't a senior.
That means the Sharks, who have preserved through previous personnel losses to reach the Elite Eight four times in five years, must reload once again.
"I know it hurts right now but you look back at our season, we should have big smiles on our faces," Pisarcik said. "We won districts. We got to the Elite Eight. Ever since 2012 nobody really gave us a chance anymore. That was that group, that era, and now we're proving people wrong. That's some satisfaction right there.
"These guys are committed. These guys are committed to winning and committed to excellence. I credit these guys. They fought hard tonight."
Gainesville-Eastside 48, Nature Coast 43
Qtr. Scoring 1 2 3 4
NCT 5 14 15 9 - 43
EAS 12 12 10 14 - 48
Nature Coast (43): Bergantino 2 1-2 5, Blackwood 5 0-4 10, Da. Jones 2 0-0 4, Parker 1 0-0 2, Clemente 7 1-2 19, Burkes 1 1-2 3. Totals 18 3-10 43.
Eastside (48): Norman 5 1-2 12, Johnson 1 1-2 4, Nobles 0, Lundy 5 5-6 17, Ross 2 1-2 6, Brown 3 0-2 6, Banton 1 0-0 3. Totals 17 8-14 48.
Three-point field goals: NCT 4 (Clemente 4); EAS 6 (Lundy 2, Johnson, Banton, Norman, Ross).
Total fouls: NCT 12; EAS 9.
Technical fouls: none.
Fouled out: Blackwood (NCT).
Records: Nature Coast (22-8), Gainesville-Eastside (24-6).
Class 5A, Region II
Nature Coast 56, Gulf 43
Tarpon Springs 70, Hernando 60
Citrus 64, Ocala-Lake Weir 55
Gainesville-Eastside 69, Dunnellon 57
Nature Coast 70, Tarpon Springs 56
Eastside 76, Citrus 72 (OT)
Eastside 48, Nature Coast 43