LAND O’LAKES — Land O’Lakes entered Tuesday’s highly anticipated matchup against undefeated Nature Coast with one focus:
Stopping the Sharks’ Tyler Bergantino.
The Gators harassed the 6-foot-9 center from the opening tip. Land O’Lakes’ Max Bartels and Victor Obi repeatedly denied Bergantino from receiving the ball in the post. The Gators duo kept the big man from establishing position near the basket.
For the most part, the strategy was effective. Bergantino was a nonfactor offensively for the better part of three quarters. The Sharks, though, got big contributions from guards Matt Dennis and Blake Lowman to overcome a sluggish start in a 45-38 victory.
“I got pretty frustrated. I didn’t feel the calls were going my way and couldn’t finish for some reason in the beginning,” said Bergantino, who finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks. “I just tried to keep my cool and toward the second half I just kind of let everything go.”
Land O’Lakes (4-3) stayed with Nature Coast (9-0) throughout the first half. Ahead 20-16 with 22 seconds left before halftime, the Gators forced an errant shot that the Sharks turned into two points. Dennis then stole a pass on the Gators’ next possession and fed Donovan Ingram for a layup to tie the game as the buzzer sounded.
“That’s the first time we’ve been down pretty much all year,” Nature Coast coach David Pisarcik said. “It’s a tribute to the kids coming back and fighting hard.”
After halftime the Sharks continued the run, scoring eight straight points to build a 28-20 lead.
Lowman drained his only 3-pointer with 4:18 remaining to give the Sharks their largest lead at 10. Land O’Lakes, though, started chipping away. Tim Crews-Hill made a 3 then the Sharks turned the ball over on three straight possessions to let the Gators cut the lead to three.
Bergantino got the ball underneath the basket on the Sharks’ next trip and laid it in. Land O’Lakes turned the ball over on its possession, and Caleb Martin sank two free throws to ice the game.
“At the end, we hit some shots and made some free throws and got the ball down to where we wanted to go and made some plays,” Pisarcik said.
Lowman and Dennis each had nine points. Justin Thomopalos was 2-for-5 from beyond the arc and finished with 10 points for Land O’Lakes. Darrell Warren also had 10 points before fouling out with 46 seconds to go.
“It’s early,” Land O’Lakes coach David Puhalski said. “We’re trying to build and get better. That’s a good measuring stick.”