CLEARWATER — For two days, Clearwater coach Allen Carden stressed to his players how important it was to get off to a quick start against Venice.
After all, the Indians are a patient, methodical team that prefers to keep the score low and makes it difficult for foes to come from behind.
The Tornadoes heeded the coach's advise, pounding Venice from the opening tip, absorbing a few modest rallies and finally securing a 47-35 victory in the Class 5A region final.
Clearwater (27-3) advances to play Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer in Wednesday's state semifinals at the Lakeland Center.
"The key was the way we started," Carden said. "We played with so much energy right away, and that helped us get a big lead and hold on to win."
In the first quarter, the Tornadoes used a balanced offense, smothering defense and poise in pressure spots to build a 17-5 lead.
"Coach Carden kept telling us to use our athleticism," said guard Regan O'Rourke, who led Clearwater with 12 points. "We did and that got us going early on."
The Indians, though, battled back from Clearwater's initial flurry of points and outscored the Tornadoes 12-9 in the second quarter to cut the deficit to 26-17 at the half.
In the third quarter, Venice used its long-range shooting to make it even closer.
The Indians' 3-pointers kept falling from the top of the key, from the wings, from the corners, from 27 feet out, 25 feet away, with hands in faces, with opponents charging out, wide open.
Kyle Jutras hit three 3-pointers and Trey Burton knocked down two as Venice scored 15 of its 16 points in the quarter off long shots.
"For about three minutes in the third quarter, we had a lapse on defense," Carden said.
Heading into the fourth quarter, Clearwater was hanging on to a 36-33 lead. But just when the Indians started showing some resistance, the Tornadoes pounded them into submission.
O'Rourke and Joey Nungester (six points) slashed to the basket for layups. Okaro White (11 points) and Julien Sargent drew fouls in the low post and altered shots on the defensive end. And Cory Carden was the perfect quarterback in crunch time, calmly directing his team to chew precious seconds off the clock at the end.
In the fourth quarter, Clearwater outscored Venice 12-2.
"I think we really bore down at the end," Carden said. "We were able to contest shots, and we moved the ball flawlessly on offense to eat up time."
As the final seconds expired, the Tornadoes rushed onto the court and high-fived fans.
This is the first time Clearwater has made it to the state semifinals since 2005.
"It's hard to describe the feeling of making to states," O'Rourke said. "It's breathtaking. We've been talking about it all season. But we're not finished. We're playing our best basketball right now and we think we can go all the way."
Bob Putnam can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4169.