HOLIDAY — During tryouts, coach Jerry Woodka hung a basketball from the ceiling in Tarpon Springs' gym. He'd written across it in black marker: "Districts 2014."
"Every day, we gathered at that ball," Woodka said. "That was our goal."
The Spongers secured their spot in district play this week, and they earned the right to host the quarterfinal when they were crowned district champions.
Tarpon Springs defeated Gulf 66-65 in an overtime game where neither team ever seemed to have a clear advantage.
"That was one of the most amazing games I've ever been a part of," Woodka said. "I have a resilient group of kids."
The last time Tarpon Springs won a district championship was in 1978. The Spongers' last playoff appearance was in 2011.
When the halftime buzzer sounded, Tarpon Springs, the No. 1 seed, and Gulf, seeded third, were tied at 26.
A 3-pointer by the Bucs' Joey Nickerson allowed Gulf to climb ahead in the beginning of the third, but an aggressive Tarpon Springs attack caught up and took the lead. Gulf's Leigh Hollenbeck hit a 3 in the final seconds of the quarter, keeping the score tight at 42-41 with Tarpon barely ahead.
Four minutes remained in regular play when another Gulf 3, this time by Edin Spijodic, tied the score at 49. The teams battled for one-point leads until Gulf's Andre Wilson was granted, and hit, two free throws that tied the score at 57. Tarpon Springs' Trai Halton was almost immediately given two free throws, making both with 22.8 seconds remaining. The Spongers looked to take the win.
Gulf's James Grubb clawed his way under the basket, though, and his layup went in with seven seconds left, sending the game to overtime.
Neither team sprinted ahead in the final four minutes. They battled in an aggressive back and forth for one-point leads again.
Halton, who finished with a game-high 26 points, finally pulled the Spongers ahead with a 3-pointer and less than 10 seconds remaining. Grubb hit a free throw to cap scoring.
Halton was also 8-for-8 from the line. Tarpon's Mitch Wilcox scored 13, and Damarian Gulley added 12.
For Gulf, Grubb had 19 points, and Nickerson added another 18, including four 3-pointers.
5A-7: Blackwood gives Sharks a boost
WESLEY CHAPEL — Before Nature Coast's Class 5A, District 7 final against Hernando on Friday, senior Rohan Blackwood had already enjoyed one of the best weeks of his life.
On Wednesday, the two-sport standout accomplished a career milestone, signing to continue his football career as a defensive lineman at USF.
But Blackwood still had one more goal to check off his list — a third straight district title for NCT's boys basketball team. On Friday night, he completed that mission. Blackwood scored 12 points and added 11 rebounds as the Sharks used a late surge to get past the Leopards 59-43.
The win was even sweeter for the 6-foot-5, 215-pound center, who returned to the Sharks (20-7) before the district tournament after missing most of the regular season due to personal reasons.
"I did miss a lot of time," Blackwood said. "I missed it. I came back and the team needed me. I came here to win this thing. And that's what we're going to do."
Hernando (15-6) struck quickly and jumped to a 12-8 lead after a 9-3 run late in the first quarter.
It wouldn't hold. NCT outscored the Leopards 13-6 in the second after Hernando junior Mike Jones (15 points) was forced to the bench with foul trouble to take a seven-point lead at the half.
Hernando crawled back and tied the score at 37 with 6:20 left in the fourth.
But not much went right for the Leopards after that. Led by Jordan Burkes (21 points) and Carlos Clemente (15), who combined for six 3-pointers, the Sharks pulled away on a 14-1 run to lock up the championship.
"We always say it's tough to be a champion," NCT coach David Piscarik said. "These never come easy. …That's why it's such a nice win for us, because we did it together."
8A-7: Wharton escapes with fifth title in a row
TAMPA — Jack Taylor picked up Wharton for the entire second half to lift the Wildcats to their fifth consecutive district title.
And after the game, it was his turn to get picked up — by teammate Chase Litton in a celebratory bear hug.
Taylor scored 13 of his team-high 18 points in the second half to lead Wharton to a 40-37 victory in the Class 8A, District 7 championship at Alonso.
"Jack definitely stepped up and got us kick-started," Wharton coach Tommy Tonelli said.
Taylor's late surge was necessary after Wharton (19-6) struggled through one of its worst halves of the season. Newsome (16-9) led for most of the game's first 23 minutes.
Auden Tate sparked Wharton in the second half with a steal and layup 30 seconds into the third quarter, and Taylor took over from there.
Times staff writer Matt Baker and correspondent Jeff Odom contributed to this report.