For the longest time, Saint Leo College was the doormat of the Sunshine State Conference, a loser that dropped 43 of 48 regular-season conference games from 1989 to 1993.
In the past month, the Monarchs have taken some giant strides to shed their image, winning six of their past eight, including an 87-74 victory over Florida Tech in the opening round of the SSC tournament Friday.
Chris Skyers scored 23 points and Corey Donley and Shawn Jennett added 17 apiece as the Monarchs erased an eight-point halftime deficit by cranking up their running game and gaining control of the boards.
Saint Leo forced a dozen second-half turnovers and outrebounded the Panthers 47-37.
"Twelve turnovers in the second half typifies what went on tonight," said Florida Tech coach Andy Russo. "Our effort was very, very poor. There were way too many loose balls we missed and offensive rebounds we missed."
With their first SSC tournament win since 1986, the Monarchs (15-12) moved into a semifinal game tonight at 8:30 p.m. against the winner of Friday's late quarterfinal between top-seeded University of Tampa and Rollins. Florida Tech finished its season at 15-12.
"We haven't had much success in the past," said Saint Leo's first-year coach Todd Smyly, the fourth at the school in five years. "Now our guys are excited."
The No. 5 seed in the tournament, Saint Leo was the third upset winner in a row Friday. Earlier, No. 6 Eckerd beat No. 3 Barry 83-63 and No. 7 North Florida No. 2 Florida Southern 87-80.
In a game of streaks Friday, Saint Leo built a 29-18 lead in the first 12 minutes, but Florida Tech's Peter Walcott scored eight consecutive points to start a 16-0 run. Then Smyly and Donley both were called for technical fouls with 58 seconds left in the half _ Howard White made all four free throws _ and the Panthers took a 41-33 lead into the locker room.
After a couple of lead changes, Bill Zimmerman scored on a layup to put the Monarchs ahead for good at 59-58 with 9:24 remaining.
_ DAVID BRACKMAN