ST. PETERSBURG — East Lake coach Joe Bloznalis was confident his team could stay with Gibbs in Friday’s Pinellas County Athletic Conference boys basketball championship game.
After all, the Eagles stayed with the Gladiators in their regular-season meeting in November, losing by three without two starters.
In the first 10 minutes of Friday’s game, East Lake was in control, jumping out to a 16-5 lead.
Then came the onslaught. The Gladiators started getting turnovers and started making shots. That helped Gibbs rally to win 47-32 and capture its first conference title since 1988.
“I wasn’t too concerned when we fell behind that quickly,” Gladiators coach Larry Murphy said. “For some reason, it takes us a while in games to get started. But I knew it was just a matter of time before we found a groove.”
The comeback was ignited by Gary Simon, who swished a long-range 3-pointer early in the second quarter to snap a seven-minute scoring drought. Simon became the go-to guy after that, finishing with a team-high 18 points.
“I knew I had to play hard and I came up with a shot (3-pointer) that gave me confidence and boosted my teammates,” Simon said.
The Gladiators also clamped down on the Eagles shooters. After scoring 16 in the first 10 minutes, East Lake scored five more in the next two quarters, including just one point in the third.
“We switched things up defensively and went more to a matchup zone,” Murphy said. “Plus, we started going to our guy (Simon). Everyone else just kept playing tough and kept playing defense.”
The Gladiators (22-3) remain undefeated in the county and won what had been an elusive conference title.
“This is something we wanted because the school doesn’t have too many of these conference banners hanging up here,” Simon said.