CLEARWATER — In the final minute of regulation, Dionte Blanch missed a layup that would have given his team the lead. No matter. Instead of getting back on defense, Blanch made an aggressive move that paid off.
The Murray State signee noticed Paxon was playing loose with the basketball on the following possession. So Blanch took it away and followed up that steal by driving to the basket for what turned out to be the winning layup in a thrilling 58-57 victory.
“It was just a grown man play,” said Eagles coach Britt Taylor, who recorded his 100th career victory. “(Blanch) just refuses to lose. I’m telling everyone to get back, and he just kind of ignored me and went after the basketball and took it, and those are the top plays that big-time players make.”
Though Blanch delivered in the pivotal moments, he had trouble racking up the points. The senior guard scored a season-low 16, in part because Paxon was intent of double-teaming him throughout Saturday’s championship game of the Prep Hoops Sun Bash Tournament.
But the Eagles (11-0) showed that the whole is greater than the sum of their parts. Two others — Henry Hurst (13 points) and Dean Gabrelcik (11) — reached double figures in scoring and all five starters had at least nine points.
“We have some other players on this team,” Taylor said. “They have a role and they can play. We knew it. They knew it. Just nobody else knew it — until tonight.”
After winning its first 10 games by double digits, East Lake faced its biggest challenge of the season in the tournament final. The Golden Eagles (12-3) were ranked second in Class 4A and 19th overall in the state by MaxPreps.
Part of the challenge was dealing with the height and athleticism of 6-foot-6 forward Isaiah Adams, who has already signed with UCF. Adams finished with 20 points, most coming in the first half, including a thunderous dunk that brought the capacity crowd at Calvary Christian to its feet.
Early on, Paxon built a nine-point lead. But the Eagles were resilient. They kept cutting into the deficit and went into halftime with a 36-33 lead.
In the fourth quarter, East Lake watched a seven-point lead evaporate as Paxon went up 57-56 with 1:12 remaining. That set up Blanch’s heroics.
“We knew we had to stay aggressive the whole game,” Blanch said. “They were doubling me, trying to take the ball out of hands. But I was able to get it to my teammates and we ended up pulling it out.”
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This was the second tournament title the Eagles won during the holiday break. At the Sun Bash, East Lake beat three teams ranked among the top 10 in their respective classification.
None was bigger than knocking off the Golden Eagles in the final.
“That was one of the better teams I’ve ever coached against,” Taylor said of Paxon. “They’re going to be in Lakeland (for the state tournament). Isaiah is one the best players I’ve ever gone up against. That’s why we come here.
“The big knock on East Lake was we have Dionte scoring and everybody else sits around and watches. We woke some people up tonight and showed we’ve got some other guys that can play, too.”
In the other championship game of the Sun Bash bracket, Clearwater beat Sarasota Booker 60-48. Max Jones scored a team-high 23 points and Nelson Taylor added 12. The Tornadoes (9-1), who have won six straight and also took home two tournament titles during the break, travel to face the Eagles in a pivotal conference matchup on Tuesday.