NEW PORT RICHEY — Nature Coast held off a furious comeback attempt to win 58-55 at Gulf on Thursday. The Sharks (20-4) advance to the Class 5A region semis Tuesday at Land O’Lakes.
Ahead by as many as 13 and still up nine midway through the fourth quarter, Nature Coast needed two big baskets late from sophomore Latavea Sesler. And when they missed two front ends of one-and-ones late, the Sharks saw Gulf with a chance to force overtime.
But a scrambling Gulf could only manage a long shot inside the 3-point arc.
Kayla Kivinski (18 points) and Jalena Hawkins (13) led an emotionally-charged Bucs’ effort in the second half.
“We needed to have that (emotion) from the start, and we didn’t,” said Kivinski, the most prolific of five senior starters who saw their careers end.
All of Hawkins’ scoring came in the second half, as two fouls in the game’s first minute gave her an early seat.
Gulf coach Clare Ennis thought Hawkins was “targeted” by one official.
“The same one called all three fouls on her. I know it’s being blunt,” Ennis said. “Officials should be facilitators, not neutralizers. It should be about the game of basketball, not hand-checking.”
The Bucs (20-4) were called for six fouls in the first three minutes, then none for the next 10 — and it was on Hawkins, sending her back to the pine after 1:48.
Nature Coast had issues, too. Three players were on the court with four fouls late, including point guard Fatima Jones (18 points) and forward Rita Jarque, who scored 16 along with 15 rebounds.
“It was a miracle no one fouled out,” Sharks coach Emily Gore said. “We had to play as smart a second half of basketball as you can.”
Jarque scored eight as Nature Coast led 17-11 after one quarter, and the margin grew to 26-13 before Gulf’s Ali Cochrane scored the first seven of a remarkable run: 11 points in 55 seconds that pulled Gulf within 27-24 at halftime.
Nature Coast shook that off, starting the third quarter with a 13-3 spurt with Emmalee Harris getting seven points. When Jones went coast-to-coast, the Sharks led 50-41 with 4:35 remaining in the fourth. Gulf got back into it with six quick points, and when Hawkins converted an offensive rebound, Nature Coast led 52-51 with more than two minutes left.
“We kept our composure,” Jarque said. “We knew Gulf was going to give us a game; they’re a great team.”
Gulf had two shots at the lead, but a steal by Jones led to Sesler’s basket to make it 54-51. After Kivinski scored Sesler again came up big nailing a short jumper. Jones also converted two key free throws to that pushed the margin to five.
Mirandas Jones and Harris both scored 10 points for Nature Coast. Cochrane finished with 10, Syann Julian eight for Gulf.
“This is the end for a lot of girls,” Ennis said. “They’re going to hurt and you just have to let them go with that feeling. But then, they’ll realize they are four-year district champs. They don’t see that now.”