BROOKSVILLE — In a game that saw multiple momentum changes and very few whistles, a frantic finished featured plenty of both.
Upset-minded Zephyrhills took the lead with 13 seconds left on Cartrell Strong's first basket of the game, only for a questionable foul call to send Nature Coast to the line moments later. Robert Gomez converted, and the Sharks (25-2) held off the Bulldogs 57-54.
The Class 6A region quarterfinal was over in 78 minutes thanks to few turnovers and a first half that saw just four fouls, only NCT getting into the bonus in the second. But the foul that sent Gomez to the line had Zephyhrhills coaches bellowing "horrible call" well after the final whistle.
The Bulldogs (20-9) had taken the lead with three minutes left on a third-chance possession, Anthony Antoine determinedly driving in to make it 53-52. A missed Sharks one-and-one had the Bulldogs in good shape, only for them to commit their first turnover of the fourth quarter with 2:09 remaining. Zephyrhills committed six all game, one in the first half.
After Esteven Lopez tied it with a free throw, the teams exchanged turnovers and Gomez sank another for a 53-52 lead with 39 seconds on the clock. Then NCT, with four fouls to give, committed a couple before Strong's high leaner went down.
NCT called timeout, the last for either team, adding to the drama of the final seconds. Bulldogs coach Mike Novak put on the full-court press and Zephyrhills knocked the first pass out of bounds. Again they hotly contested the ensuing pass, and Robert McAfee put on up for grabs that the Bulldogs knocked away. There appeared to be no contact; the Bulldogs coaches didn't even react at first, unaware that Gomez would be headed to the line with nine seconds left.
The junior, who scored 10 of his 13 in the second half, coolly sank the pair before McAfee got a steal and added two more free throws with 3.5 ticks left.
McAfee scored 27 points, the last 10 coming from the line. In fact Nature Coast only hit two field goals in the fourth quarter but was 10-of-14 on free throws.
Kurt Robbins, the Bulldogs' 6-foot-7 senior center, scored 18 of his 23 points in the first half but was kept off the glass in the second after securing five offensive rebounds in the first. Robbins scored nine in the first quarter, when neither team led by more than four, and NCT was up 16-14 heading into the second.
Then McAfee caught fire, drilling three 3-pointers in two minutes for a 27-22 lead — only to see the Bulldogs close the half 13-2, Robbins getting the final three baskets for a 35-29 advantage. Myles Carter played solid defense off the bench to blank McAfee for the last 3:50 of the half.
It was the Sharks turn for a run, and aided by cranked-up defense, they scored the first 13 points of the third quarter for a 42-35 lead. Zephyrhills scored nothing out of its offensive sets, but back-to-back steals by Antoine got the margin to three heading into the fourth.
Austin Rivera added nine points, Orien Adams eight along with 10 rebounds for NCT. Lopez had five assists. Antoine pulled down five boards for the Bulldogs, who got six points from Dontae Marchman.
Nature Coast will host Ridgewood in Tuesday's region semifinals.