BROOKSVILLE — As Nature Coast joined hands at midcourt to start practice for Thursday’s Class 5A state semifinal, star center Tyler Bergantino spoke up.
“Let’s go,” Bergantino yelled at his teammates. “This is it.”
After years of close calls, this is it for the Sharks (29-1).
They’ve achieved their long-awaited goal. They’re finally in the final four with a 6 p.m. game against Jacksonville Terry Parker (24-5) at the Lakeland Center.
“It’s no secret,” coach David Pisarcik said. “We’re happy to be where we’re at.”
Pisarcik’s team exorcised its two consecutive region final losses with last week’s 52-39 victory over Gainesville Eastside. And NCT did it in unexpected ways.
Instead of succumbing to turnovers as they had in the past, guards Blake Lowman and Donovan Ingram were strong. They handled the man-to-man pressure and traps to lead NCT to its fifth consecutive double-digit victory.
“Being there three times, we kind of knew what to expect already,” said Lowman, a Florida Southern recruit.
They should expect more of the same Thursday against a Parker team that uses its quick, athletic guards to swarm the entire court, even without one of the state’s top talents.
Five-star guard Solomon Poole was handed a six-week suspension in January by the Florida High School Athletic Association for receiving a technical, then cursing and squirting a water bottle at the court, according to the Florida Times-Union. Poole is Rivals’ No. 9 junior in the country and has offers from USF, Miami, UCLA and Memphis, among others.
The other noteworthy change in NCT’s region final win: Bergantino didn’t dominate offensively. Eastside held the 6-foot-9 UMass recruit to only nine points. It was only the fourth game all season in which Bergantino did not score in double digits.
Bergantino (17.2 points, 13.6 rebounds, 5.6 blocks per game) draws headlines and double teams, but with NCT’s depth, he doesn’t need to dominate on offense every game. Five Sharks scored at least seven points against Eastside.
“We don’t have that 20-point scorer guard — ‘Here, go score me 20 points,’ ” Pisarcik said. “We do it together.”
The cast surrounding Bergantino has taken turns in the spotlight. Sophomore forward Rohan Blackwood was pivotal last week with a season-high 19 points. In the region semifinal, NCT relied on the spark from Ingram’s speed for a 54-40 win over Hudson.
In last month’s 46-37 win over Lake Region, Caleb Martin exploded for 10 key points. And since the postseason started, John Parker has emerged as the team’s unsung hero with late baskets and key steals.
“He allowed us to be so much more athletic defensively,” Pisarcik said.
Expectations for the Sharks have grown as Bergantino, Lowman and the rest of NCT’s seniors aged and matured. When they saw Springstead win their first 31 games during their freshman season and advance to 2009 state title game, they realized that a trip to state was attainable.
“It definitely opened up our eyes,” Pisarcik said. “We were like, ‘Hey, this is something we can do, too. …’
“Springstead made it to the final. We wanted to be the ones that go down in history. To do that, we have to win. These kids understood that.”
And as they enter the state final four for the first time, the Sharks understand they must re-evaluate their goals.
Bergantino said they can’t be happy with making the final four now that they have a chance to win it all.
“We already ate what we ordered,” Bergantino said. “But we want dessert.”
Class 5A state semifinal: Nature Coast vs. Jacksonville Terry Parker
When/where: 6 p.m. Thursday. The Lakeland Center
Admission: $10 per session; parking is $7
TV: BHSN will air the finals
On the Web: We’ll be live blogging the game.
Nature Coast by the numbers
0 Final four appearances by the Sharks before this season
14 Average margin of victory in NCT’s three region wins
8.5 Points per game by key role player John Parker in the past four games
3 Consecutive seasons with at least 27 wins
6 Combined steals per game by guards Blake Lowman and Donovan Ingram
14 Rebounds per game by Tyler Bergantino last month