WESLEY CHAPEL — Kevin Burnell looked sharp walking out of the visiting locker room.
The Land O'Lakes star wore a slick button-down shirt and matching pants. All he needed was a tie and he could have convinced any potential employer to hire him on the spot.
Anyone can see Burnell is a kid with promise, a natural leader.
Take Tuesday's key Class 4A, District 8 game at Wesley Chapel. Burnell, who played a reserve role last season, lifted the Gators to a gritty 74-69 win.
Now, he is the star averaging roughly 21 points.
"I felt like I had to continue getting better through each year," Burnell said. "I knew I was going to have to play a lot better (after losing some key players). … I just try to have fun."
Burnell had many key plays Tuesday where he maneuvered the ball through a maze of defenders' hands and arms.
He finished with 27 points — one shy of his season high — with his most important points coming in the final two minutes.
The Gators (4-0) trailed by 12 at halftime thanks to intense defense and up-tempo transition by the Wildcats (4-2). Wesley Chapel's smart play, sharp passing and speed forced the Gators into quick shots and turnovers. Wildcat twins Justin and Jordan Mitchell led the way with 16 and 17 points, respectively.
Land O'Lakes coach Dave Puhalski, in his 23rd year, preached defense before the third quarter. The result was a 13-3 run to start the second half to pull within three midway through the period.
Each team held a lead through the final 12 minutes, and Land O'Lakes junior Quentin Bastian added 18 points.
Tied at 69 with less than two minutes left, Burnell made the play that would push the Gators ahead for good. He drove along the baseline and took off, zipping through traffic and kicking the ball in the air with his hand as he was fouled, watching it go through the net. He converted the three-point play for a 72-69 lead.
Wiregrass Ranch 66, Zephyrhills 45: The Bulls continued their hot start with a convincing road win. Kelly McCaffrey led Wiregrass (7-1) with 19 points. Regan Knapik added 16 and Julie Gould had 11. Jennifer Patria paced Zephyrhills (1-6) with 16.