HOLIDAY — During tryouts, coach Jerry Woodka hung a basketball from the ceiling in Tarpon Springs’ gym. He’d written across it in black marker: “Districts 2014.”
“Every day, we gathered at that ball,” Woodka said. “That was our goal.”
The Spongers secured their spot in district play this week, and they earned the right to host the quarterfinal when they were crowned district champions.
Tarpon Springs defeated Gulf 66-65 in an overtime game where neither team ever seemed to have a clear advantage.
“That was one of the most amazing games I’ve ever been a part of,” Woodka said. “I have a resilient group of kids.”
The last time Tarpon Springs won a district championship was in 1978. The Spongers’ last playoff appearance was in 2011.
When the halftime buzzer sounded, Tarpon Springs, the No. 1 seed, and Gulf, seeded third, were tied at 26.
A 3-pointer by the Bucs’ Joey Nickerson allowed Gulf to climb ahead in the beginning of the third, but an aggressive Tarpon Springs attack caught up and took the lead. Gulf’s Leigh Hollenbeck hit a 3 in the final seconds of the quarter, keeping the score tight at 42-41 with Tarpon barely ahead.
Four minutes remained in regular play when another Gulf 3, this time by Edin Spijodic, tied the score at 49. The teams battled for one-point leads until Gulf’s Andre Wilson was granted, and hit, two free throws that tied the score at 57. Tarpon Springs’ Trai Halton was almost immediately given two free throws, making both with 22.8 seconds remaining. The Spongers looked to take the win.
Gulf’s James Grubb clawed his way under the basket, though, and his layup went in with seven seconds left, sending the game to overtime.
Neither team sprinted ahead in the final four minutes. They battled in an aggressive back and forth for one-point leads again.
Halton, who finished with a game-high 26 points, finally pulled the Spongers ahead with a 3-pointer and less than 10 seconds remaining. Grubb hit a free throw to cap scoring.
Halton was also 8-for-8 from the line. Tarpon’s Mitch Wilcox scored 13, and Damarian Gulley added 12.
For Gulf, Grubb had 19 points, and Nickerson added another 18, including four 3-pointers.