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WHEN: Today, 7 p.m.

WHERE: Lecanto.


THE SCOOP: This is Lecanto's third playoff appearance. In 1998 and 2002, the Panthers advanced to the sweet 16. But this time they face stiff competition in Green Cove Springs Clay High, which has deliberate, patient shooters who can rebound well. The Blue Devils (19-7) are large, with all starters 6 feet or taller. Center Blake Elrod is 6-8, 270 pounds. Senior forward Wanick Cime is 6-5 and senior guard Damon Pifer 6-2, 210. But Clay isn't as deep as Lecanto (21-4), which has used a five-man bench to rotate in during the third quarter and give the starters a breather. Lecanto - known for speed, three-point shots and late rallies - has an 18.2 points average in the fourth quarter. Senior guard Mychal Nichols leads the Panthers with an 18-point average.

WHAT CHRIS NICHOLS SAYS: The Blue Devils "present a challenge," said the Lecanto coach, who guided the Panthers from 1984-88 and has since 1994. "They are the biggest team we will have faced. We are going to play our style of play and whatever style goes to the forefront will decide who wins."

HOW LECANTO GOT HERE: The Panthers are 19-0 against Class 4A opponents, with additional wins over 5A Gainesville and Manatee. Lecanto's four losses came against 5A Land O' Lakes and Bayshore and 6A Countryside. Lecanto won 64-55 over North Marion for its district title. The Panthers trailed early, then took a 23-22 halftime lead. In typical Lecanto fashion, it scored 25 points in the fourth quarter for the victory.

UP NEXT: If they win, the Panthers play the Springstead-Orlando Bishop Moore winner Tuesday. Despite Springstead's highly touted AB Rodriguez, Lecanto has easily beaten the District 8 champion Eagles (18-9) this season, 77-46 and 92-78. Bishop Moore (20-8) lost to Eustis, which has captured a district crown four consecutive years, but brought the game to within one point with just five-plus minutes left before losing 60-46.

- DAWN REISS, Times staff writer