NEW PORT RICHEY — Mike Quarto is hoping the third time is the charm.
For the third season in a row, the Gulf coach and his team will be headed to the second round of the state playoffs after a 57-45 win in the Class 5A region quarterfinals Thursday over Tavares.
The past two seasons Gulf (27-2) has fallen in the next round, but Quarto said he believes the results will be different this year.
“We showed our youth and inexperience on the defensive side of the ball in this game,” Quarto said, “but hopefully this year will be different from the last two because we are peaking offensively at the perfect time.”
After going up 11-0, the young, less experienced Buccaneers began to let their lead slip away.
When adversity struck, it was junior guard Kadejah Saunders who struck back. The team’s second-leading scorer at 16.5 points per game, Saunders had 15 at halftime and finished with a game-high 26, along with seven rebounds.
“Kadejah really was amazing for us when (Tavares) made a run in the third quarter,” Quarto said. “She did it all.”
Where Tavares had a major advantage over the Buccaneers was on the front line, especially when the Gulf frontcourt got into foul trouble. However, it was sophomore forward Kayla Kivinski who stood tall and played strong down low. Her 13 points were second best in the game, but it was her 17 rebounds and four steals that allowed her to control the paint.
“Kayla is a triple threat,” Quarto said. “She can dribble, shoot, pass and rebound. In girls basketball it doesn’t get better than that.”
Gulf now only has to knock off a team it has defeated three times this season — Pasco. While the Buccaneers are likely favored going in are they host the Pirates on Tuesday, Quarto is trying to temper those expectations.
“I don’t care who it is,” he said. “It’s hard to beat any team four times.”