CLEARWATER — The Clearwater and Wiregrass Ranch boys basketball teams both entered this season with a similar issue, having lost talented big men.
The Tornadoes' 6-foot-9 forward Okaro White went to Florida State, and the Bulls' 6-foot-9 center Eric Williams went to St. Petersburg College.
So Clearwater and Wiregrass have switched their focus to team chemistry, and Clearwater got off to a 5-1 start, the Bulls 6-1.
The host Tornadoes had four players score in double figures and beat the Bulls, who had three in double figures, 75-69 Saturday in a first-round game at the Bright House Networks Tournament.
"Last year, we had two guys (White and guard Cory Carden) who we could depend on game in and game out," Clearwater coach Allen Carden said. "Now, we have to really work together as a unit on the defensive end because before we could lean on (White). Our guys know we have the ability to run and push the ball, but we have to be efficient defensively."
The Tornadoes made crucial defensive plays with a 71-69 lead, forcing Antwan Prince (17 points) into a contested fall-away miss with a minute left. Then, after a made free throw by Clearwater's John Hogan, the Bulls had to work more than 25 seconds to get off a missed 3-pointer by Rico Kerney (12 points).
Dionta Hubbard (14 points) hit 3-of-4 free throws in the last 20 seconds to seal the game.
"It's going to be important for us to find chemistry and keep it to sustain a successful run throughout the season," said Hogan, who scored 20. "We've had some good tight-knit moments … and there's been times we've had to struggle to find it."
The Tornadoes also got 13 points from Joey Nunguster and 11 from Mantis Striklus.
Wiregrass was led by Tanner Carey's game-high 21 points.
"This is why we come down here to play in these types of tournaments against Pinellas County talent," Wiregrass coach Jeremy Calzone said. "This type of adversity will only make us better."