BROOKSVILLE — The field of the Nature Coast Christmas Tournament turned out to be very deep, evidenced by some solid first-round contests.
The host Sharks headed up the winners on Friday's first day, pulling away to defeat Steinbrenner convincingly, 79-66.
Nature Coast (11-1) had a couple of breakout performances. Despite playing without leading rebounder Rohan Blackwood, still away for the holiday break, the Sharks outrebounded the Warriors 54-22.
"Our front line needs to be aggressive for us to be as good as we can be," Nature Coast coach David Pisarcik said. "I'm really happy with the way the big guys played."
Cody Bergantino, the younger brother of former Nature Coast standout and current UMass forward Tyler Bergantino, achieved career highs in points (14) and rebounds (16) to head up the effort.
Steinbrenner (3-10) leaned heavily on leading scorer Keshawn Ingram, but as the senior guard tired in the second half, the Warriors fell off the pace. Ingram scored 35 but was matched nearly shot for shot by Nature Coast guard Carlos Clemente (career-best 30 points, seven rebounds).
The Sharks advanced to Saturday's semifinals against Orlando Jones. The Tigers easily advanced past Weeki Wachee 77-32.
The Hornets (0-11) were without Tyler Wiley (20 points per game), also still on break. Jones (7-7) capitalized with three players in double figures and all 12 getting into the scoring column.
In the early semifinal, Brooks-DeBartolo (9-3) will meet Tarpon Springs (12-2). The Phoenix, without three top players for various reasons, defeated Springstead 69-55 in the opener.
The Spongers had their hands full. Jefferson (13-4) was very cold from the field, and though the Tigers pushed Tarpon to the brink, the inability to score eventually led to a 55-49 win for the Spongers, who got a great performance from Scottie James (24 points, 15 rebounds).
"We hit some good shots inside and handled their man-pressure defense well," Spongers coach Jerry Woodka said. "It's always a lot of Scottie, but Jefferson double-teamed the ball. We responded well and all five got involved."
ST. PETERSBURG — The top two teams in the Northeast Christmas Invitational advanced to tonight's final, but they took different paths there.
Wharton struggled early before finally putting away Boca Ciega 59-48 in Friday's first semifinal. In the second game, St. Petersburg had little trouble getting past host Northeast 72-41. Wharton (12-2) will play St. Petersburg (11-0) at 8:30 for the championship.
Boca Ciega led 6-0 midway through the first quarter. After three free throws, Wharton got its first field goal with 2:11 left on Thomas Tonelli's jump shot. From there, the Wildcats took an 11-6 lead before Boca Ciega's Matt Humbert hit a 3-point shot at the buzzer to cut the first-quarter lead to 11-9.
Wharton couldn't shake Boca Ciega in the second quarter. Chase Litton converted a three-point play and Jack Taylor hit two 3-point shots to give the Wildcats a 20-11 lead. But the Pirates came back with a 3-pointer by Humbert, a layup by Koby Wynn and two Humbert free throws to cut the lead to 20-18. Wharton led 22-18 at halftime.
"The first half was frustrating," Wharton coach Tommy Tonelli said. "We had 11 turnovers, and a lot of those were just us throwing the ball away. They were just unforced. But I was proud of the way they kept their composure and played tougher and smarter in the second half."
The Pirates (5-9) led 28-26 halfway through the third. But Wharton went on an 18-5 run to take a 44-33 lead late in the quarter. Boca Ciega got to within 48-43 in the fourth, but Wharton got some key steals and conversions to end any Pirates comeback.
"We're just young," Boca Ciega coach Randy Shuman said. "We're a heck of a JV team."
Taylor led Wharton with 17 points. John Christian added 12 and Litton had 11. Raeshon Dunbar had 16 points for Boca Ciega.
In the second game, St. Petersburg was not really challenged, starting on a 10-2 run. St. Petersburg hurt the Vikings (1-15) with size, but also with outside shooting. The Green Devils hit 10 3-point shots in the 31-point win.
They also spread out their scoring; St. Petersburg had nine players score. Darius Banks had 14 points and Dayon Griffin added 13. Keith Harrington's 15 points led Northeast.
In today's fifth-place game, Tampa Bay Tech will play Northeast at 5:30. Countryside faces Boca Ciega for third place at 7.
Rodney Page, Times staff writer