NEW PORT RICHEY — Knowing it had little chance at pulling off the area's upset of the year if it got into a track meet with sixth-ranked Ridgewood, Land O'Lakes opted for slow and methodical.
And for the better part of Friday's Class 5A, District 7 rematch on Anders Court, that offensive patience was virtuous for the Gators — and perilous for the hosts.
A 31-point loser to the Rams (18-2) on Dec. 16, the Gators (13-8) kept things close Friday until some clutch free-throw shooting — and the hot hand of wiry junior Charles Jones — helped Ridgewood pull away for a 51-41 triumph.
The point total was Ridgewood's lowest of the season, and the margin of victory its smallest since Dec. 20.
"We can't outscore them; we figured that out the first (meeting)," Gators coach Dave Puhalski said. "It's not rocket surgery. …We knew we had to keep it somewhere in the 50s. If we were in the 50s we could at least be in the game."
Deliberately working the ball around the perimeter in an effort to find open interior looks, the Gators created foul trouble for the Rams post players and neutralized their transition game. Three times in the third quarter, Land O'Lakes crept within three points, the last coming on Michael Cardwell's running bank shot that made it 26-23.
"That was certainly not something that I had seen out of them," said Ridgewood coach Gary Anders, whose team sank 10 consecutive free throws in the final three minutes. "They did a good job with it, and I was really proud of our defensive patience. When they were going to roll some time off the clock, I thought our kids did a pretty good job."
Anders saved his highest praise for Jones, a 6-foot-4, 158-pound forward who missed his sophomore season with academic problems. Jones' layup at the third-quarter buzzer gave Ridgewood a 30-23 lead, and his 3-pointer 42 seconds into the fourth pushed the Rams' advantage to 10.
After Quentin Bastian's turnaround jumper over 6-foot-8 Ridgewood senior Lukas Poderis cut the Gators' deficit to 33-29, the Rams responded with Alvin Satram's penetrating layup and another Jones 3 to again make it a 10-point game with 3:23 to play. Twelve of Jones' 16 points came in the final quarter.
"He was the X-factor tonight," Puhalski said.