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CLEARWATER — By the fourth quarter the grace was gone. The 3-pointers were no longer swishing. The passes were erratic. The points were less plentiful.
The Gladiators’ offense had hit a stumbling block. They were behind by five and their undefeated season was in jeopardy.
So Gibbs coach Larry Murphy called on the only thing he could.
He dialed up the pressure.
The Gladiators played withering defense down the stretch, outscoring Sarasota Riverview 18-9 in the fourth quarter Tuesday to win 57-54 in the championship game of the Bright House Holiday Tournament.
“Offensively, it’s not pretty right now and it probably won’t be for a while,” Murphy said. “We called timeout at one point and said we’re going to have to do this with defense. We got the steals we needed to come back and win.”
The Rams, who survived a triple-overtime thriller against Nature Coast in the semifinals, relied on the shooting of guards Tyreek Long, Austin Walker and Eric Traver to go up 26-24 at the half and 44-39 going into the fourth quarter.
Murphy said he waited put on the pressure until the fourth quarter when Sarasota Riverview would most likely be tired and its guards would no longer have the stamina to hoist shots along the perimeter.
“I knew I was going to go to the pressure at some point,” Murphy said. “I felt like we could work them and wear them down. Their guards were not as much of a factor down the stretch.”
The physical play also caused fouls; Long and Traver fouled out in the fourth quarter. That helped as the Gladiators forced steals and hit crucial free throws in the final minute.
Gary Simon led the Gladiators with 18 points, including 7-of-9 in free throws. Walker had 19 points for the Rams, including four 3-pointers.
Nature Coast won the third-place game 48-46, outscoring Clearwater 11-8 in the fourth quarter.
Tyler Bergantino led the Sharks with a team-high 22 points and teammate Caleb Martin added 11. Joe Lampley (14 points) and Cody Carden (12) were the only two to reach double figures for the Tornadoes.
All-tournament team: Tarver, who had 15 points in the final and was the leading scorer in the tournament, was named MVP. Two of his teammates, Walker and Long, were also on the all-tournament team. Gibbs had three players — Simon, Barry Brown and Shaquille Speights. Others on the all-tournament teams were Clearwater’s Harvey Adams and Lampley, Nature Coast’s Bergantino and Martin, Alonso’s Malachi Christopher, Bloomingdale’s Demetrious Sykes, Boca Ciega’s Dallas Moore and Kissimmee Gateway’s Tyler Scott.