CLEARWATER — East Lake’s early-season schedule included plenty of games that were supposed to present a challenge. Trouble was, there have not been any close contests.
The Eagles, ranked second in Class 5A and sixth overall in the state by MaxPreps, had won every game by double digits entering Friday’s semifinals in the Prep Hoops Sun Bash. That included a 23-point rout over Wildwood, ranked first in Class A, in the opening round.
For at least a half Friday, East Lake got what it wanted against Choctawhatchee: a test.
Early on, the game was tight with neither team holding more than a two-point lead.
Ahead 32-31, the Eagles broke the game open in the third quarter by connecting on some outside shots. In the end, East Lake prevailed 66-51 in another double-digit victory.
“This is exactly what we needed,” Eagles coach Britt Taylor said. “It’s part of the reason we got into this tournament. These are playoff type games. All the teams we’ve faced are either ranked in the state or have a deep history of making it to the final four.”
In the opening round, East Lake (10-0) was amped to face Wildwood. It showed as the Eagles took control from the start. Taylor said there was somewhat of a letdown, at least in the first half against Choctawhatchee.
“We were kind of going through the motions,” he said. “The good thing is we have great leadership and those guys kind of helped get back into a rhythm.”
Dionte Blanch led all scorers with 24 points. Teammates Jordan Hillmon (15 points) and Noah Chatman (12) also reached double figures.
The Eagles will face Paxon in the Sun Bracket title game Saturday at 8:30 p.m.
In the Bash Bracket, Clearwater advanced to the championship game with a 73-52 win over Lakeland Victory Christian. The Tornadoes (8-1) will play Sarasota Booker in Saturday’s title game at 7 p.m.
After winning a district title last season, Clearwater appeared to be in rebuilding mode after graduating four starters. But the Tornadoes have stayed on track. Reinforcements came from a junior varsity team that went undefeated and won a conference title last season. And Max Jones, the lone returner in the lineup, has been a force, averaging 24.8 points and 10.1 rebounds.
“We felt like we would still be fine despite losing so many guys and we still had a lot of weapons,” Clearwater coach Kris Foote said. “We have this family environment and are starting to build something and we just keep pushing.”
Though the Tornadoes and the Eagles are playing in title games in opposite brackets, they will meet Tuesday with another title at stake. The winner will likely represent the North Division in the Pinellas County Athletic Conference championship game.