BROOKSVILLE — Following its first district title since 1978 and first regional victory since 1947, Tarpon Springs couldn't return to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1950.
Host Nature Coast shut down the Spongers early to build as much as an 18-point lead, then withstood a late charge to hand Tarpon Springs a 70-56 loss in Tuesday night's Class 5A Region 2 semifinal.
The loss put an end to a historic season for the Spongers (27-4), one that included a 53-50 victory over the Sharks (22-7) on this same floor in the final of the Nature Coast Christmas Tournament in December.
The Sharks were without senior power forward Rohan Blackwood that December night, though, and his athleticism and physicality in the paint turned the tables. He accounted for 19 points, 10 rebounds and three steals.
Blackwood missed 18 games during the regular season while securing a football scholarship. He signed with USF earlier this month.
“Rohan's definitely a difference-maker,” Nature Coast head coach Dave Pisarcik said. “But watching a lot of film on them, we tried to get to those areas to attack. Guys made shots tonight.”
The Sharks stifled the Spongers in the first half to build a 31-18 advantage at the intermission. That lead swelled to 40-22 midway through the third quarter when a dunk by Damarian Gulley seemed to awaken Tarpon Springs.
The deficit was cut to six, 50-44, before baskets by Jordan Burkes and Blackwood put Nature Coast back in front by double figures.
Down the stretch it became a march to the free throw line for the Sharks. They converted 18-of-24 from the charity stripe, with Burkes hitting on 11-of-14.
“Sometimes when you've got a lead like that and you're not trying to force things, you sort of get passive and you turn the ball over and you're not playing any defense,” Pisarcik said. “Some of our seniors stepped up and made some plays and made just enough to keep it out of reach until they started fouling.”
Spongers junior forward Scottie James scored 21 points, featuring four 3-pointers, while grabbing 11 rebounds. Point guard Trai Halton added 11 points, five assists and five steals, though he fouled out with 2:28 left and his team trailing 54-47.
Mitch Wilcox chipped in 13 points, eight rebounds and three steals.
Along with Blackwood, the Sharks were paced by Burkes (16 points, six rebounds, three steals), Cody Bergantino (10 points, seven rebounds, three steals) and Carlos Clemente (10 points).
They will travel to Gainesville Eastside for Saturday night's final, their fourth Elite Eight appearance in five seasons.
TSHS - 6 – 12 – 18 – 20 --- 56
NCT - 14 – 17 – 15 – 24 --- 70
Tarpon Springs (56): Wilcox 6 1-3 13, James 8 1-3 21, Atkins 1 0-0 2, Halton 3 3-4 11, Gulley 2 1-2 5, Jimenez 1 0-0 3, Lazzari 0 1-2 1, Turner 0, Taylor 0. Totals 21 7-14 56.
Nature Coast (70): Clemente 3 1-2 10, Bergantino 3 4-5 10, Da. Jones 1 0-0 2, Parker 1 2-3 4, Burkes 2 11-14 16, Blackwood 8 3-4 19, Doherty 3 0-0 9, Crima 0, Do. Jones 0, Carnegie 0. Totals 21 21-28 70.
Three-point field goals: TS 3 (James 4, Halton 2, Jimenez); NCT 7 (Doherty 3, Clemente 3, Burkes.
Total fouls: TS 22; NCT 13.
Fouled out: Halton, Gulley (TS).
Records: Tarpon Springs (27-4), Nature Coast (22-7).