WESLEY CHAPEL — Nature Coast remembered the sting of watching Wiregrass Ranch win a district championship on the Sharks’ home court 11 days ago.
The Sharks took exception to the Bulls’ prolonged celebration. They seethed over the perceived slight, stewing for days until their anger reached a boiling point.
In the rematch with a trip to the region final on the line, the Sharks stepped off the bus focused on one mission — making the Bulls feel the hurt they experienced two games earlier.
And behind an aggressive offensive game plan that attacked the Bulls’ full-court press combined with outstanding play from 6-foot-9 Tyler Bergantino and senior Matt Dennis, the Sharks led from the outset and never trailed in a satisfying 70-56 victory in the region semifinals.
“Gets the bad taste out of our mouth, that’s for sure,” Bergantino said.
After trading baskets to start the game, Nature Coast (27-3) scored 14 straight points to take control.
“All week, we were ready to play,” Nature Coast coach Dave Pisarcik said. “We wanted to play them (Monday). When they got off the bus and onto the court, they were ready. You could see the aggressiveness and the intensity coming out.”
The Bulls (22-8) scored the last seven points of the first quarter to cut the lead to eight, but at that point the psychological damage had been done.
“The game was won or lost in the first five minutes of the game,” Wiregrass Ranch coach Jeremy Calzone said.
Nature Coast led by 10 at halftime and maintained that advantage pretty much throughout. Every time Wiregrass Ranch cut the deficit to single digits, the Sharks responded with a critical basket to build back its lead and deflate the Bulls.
“We valued every possession offensively and defensively, and it paid off tonight,” Pisarcik said.
Nature Coast went ahead by 15 at one point in the fourth quarter before Wiregrass Ranch pulled to 62-54 on Michael Chase’s lay-in with 1:56 to go. At that point, the Bulls’ only option was to try for a steal on their press and foul when they couldn’t get a turnover.
Dennis, Donovan Ingram and Blake Lowman made enough free throws down the stretch, and the Sharks took care of the ball to seal the win.
“If we didn’t get back to the elite eight, it would have been a disappointing season for us,” said Pisarcik, team, whose playing in the region final for the second year in a row, will host Leesburg on Saturday.
About the only negative for Nature Coast came when Bergantino (game-high 20 points, 10 rebounds) picked up his second foul with 37 seconds left in the first quarter. The junior center came out briefly but returned to start the second quarter and remained on the court, even after picking up foul No. 3 with 2:58 to go in the half.
Bergantino, who didn’t miss a field goal until the Sharks’ first possession of the fourth quarter, finished with four fouls.
“Tyler’s obviously what makes us go. Matt’s our backbone, Tyler’s our game plan, inside out,” Pisarcik said. “When he’s out or he’s got to play not as aggressive as he should, it hurts us. I thought we had guys come in and step up.”
Dennis had 17 points and 13 rebounds to pick up the Sharks with Bergantino playing cautiously .
Wiregrass Ranch finished 6-of-29 from 3-point range and was never completely effective turning Nature Coast over with its full-court press. Chase led the Bulls with 16 points, Rico Kerney contributed 14 and Tanner Carey made a trio of 3-pointers to finish with 11.