LAKEWOOD RANCH — East Lake had already set all kinds of records this season in winning its first conference and district titles, and advancing to the region final for the first time.
On Friday, the Eagles were on the verge on reaching the biggest milestone yet: a first-ever trip to the state semifinals.
To do that, East Lake had to go on the road to face Lakewood Ranch. It was a tough task. The Mustangs are 60-3 at home since Jeremy Schiller took over the program five years ago.
The raucous crowd hardly fazed the Eagles, who not only competed but also took the lead several times in a tightly contested game. In fact, East Lake had tied the score at 47 in the final two minutes.
That is when Lakewood Ranch took over, scoring the final 10 points to win 57-47. This is the Mustangs’ second state semifinal trip in the past three seasons. They secured their last appearance in 2017 by knocking off St. Petersburg in the region final at home.
“I’m proud of them,” Eagles coach Britt Taylor said. “I feel bad for the guys because they battled so hard. They gave me everything they had and that’s all you can ask for.”
After trailing by four early in the third quarter, East Lake came roaring back to pull ahead 14-10 at the end of the first quarter. The Eagles (24-5) maintained a lead until right before the half ended.
Christian Shaneyfelt, the son of former Clearwater boys and girls basketball coach Tom Shaneyfelt, hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Lakewood Ranch a 27-24 lead. Christian scored all 14 of his first-half points in the second quarter.
The momentum continued for the Mustangs as they went up 31-24 early in the third quarter.
But East Lake would not go away. A pair of 3-pointers cut it to 31-30. Then the Eagles’ electrifying guard, Dionte Blanch, went to work. The junior drove for a layup, then knocked down a 3-pointer to give East Lake a 35-31 lead.
Blanch ended the third quarter with an emphatic dunk off an alley-oop pass to put the Eagles ahead 38-35.
Back and forth it went in the fourth quarter with the teams twice forcing ties. The last came on a Dean Gabrelcik 3-pointer to make it 47-all with 1:55 remaining.
Christian Shaneyfelt hit some clutch shots down the stretch, including a 3-pointer from the corner to help put the game away. He finished with 23 points.
“The scouting report I got from every single coach was that (Shaneyfelt) is not a 3-point shooter,” Taylor said. “Well, about four 3-pointers later we had to really change what we do. Credit to him. He played really well and shot really well.”
Gabrelcik led the Eagles with 17 points, including five 3-pointers. Blanch and Jordan Hillmon each had 12. All three players return next season.
“This is always the toughest moment to go in the locker room after the season ends,” Taylor said. “But there’s a lot that we accomplished. This is the greatest team to ever put on an East Lake uniform. They can’t hang their heads for that.”