CLEARWATER — Energy and execution made all of the difference.
In the two marquee matchups at Saturday's Clearwater Shootout, early bursts of power and production from both Seminole and the host Tornadoes made all of the difference.
Facing a Winter Haven squad that came into action with a 14-2 record but was road weary due to a bus breakdown on the way to the game, Seminole was able to soar to an early 16-point lead, then hold on for dear life for a 69-67 victory.
“Luckily for us, we were able to get an early enough lead and then we were able to capitalize on plays down the stretch,” said Warhawks coach Josh Walker.
In the first quarter, Seminole (9-4) held the Blue Devils scoreless for 5:46, riding seven points from Sam Denor (12 points, three steals) and six from Player of the Game Parker Conitz (game-high 22 points, 10 rebounds, six assists) to an 18-2 advantage.
The advantage reached 22 on a second-quarter 3-pointer from John Stephany (10 points, three blocks) before Winter Haven slowly crawled back into the game.
Mixing up defenses and leaning on inside presences like seniors Joshua Celiscar (Player of the Game, 17 points and 12 rebounds, nine off the offensive glass) and Malachi Howard (eight second-half points) got the visitors within nine after three quarters and deadlocked at 67 with 10.2 seconds left on a Celiscar putback.
But behind guard Eli Cotto, Seminole was able to survive the onslaught. Fouled five times in the game’s last 1:37, Cotto drained 6-of-9 free throws, the last with 4.2 seconds remaining for the winning margin.
Stephany stole the ensuing Winter Haven inbound pass to lock up the victory.
“We really practice a lot of situational ball and that helps,” said Cotto, who finished with 10 points and five assists. “My teammates helped to pump me up, get me hype, so it wasn’t that hard (to finish strong).”
“It’s Cotto season,” Walker concurred. “He relishes having the ball late in games, and he and Rafael Oriano (11 points on three 3-pointers, five assists) are so competitive. It’s great to be part of this.”
Taylor’s energy, balanced offense lifts Tornadoes
Just over a minute into the Shootout nightcap, Clearwater standout Max Jones was making his way to the bench after committing an offensive foul.
“Max had three fouls before halftime (Friday) against Lakewood,” Tornadoes coach Kris Foote said, looking to head off a negative trend. “Some kids don’t want to come out of games, but you have to be a coach in that moment.”
Behind the productive, positive energy of junior Nelson Taylor and, upon his return, a focused Jones, Clearwater pulled away for an impressive 85-63 win over Tampa Bay Tech.
Taylor was a buzzsaw early, racking up eight points, five rebounds, four steals and four assists in the first half as the Tornadoes (11-3) dashed to an 18-point halftime advantage.
“That’s his role, he’s our glue guy,” Foote said of Nelson, who finished with 14 points. “He was the point guard on our undefeated JV team last year and he’s playing an undersized 4 and 5 this year and doing really well. He’s a hard-working kid, he knows a lot about the game, he’s talented and athletic. That’s all we can ask.”
“I've worked hard to get where I am and the coaches push me to get even better,” Nelson said. “They find and focus on the littlest things to keep me on track.”
The Tornadoes excelled on both ends of the floor. Jones (named Clearwater’s Player of the Game) finished with 14 points and nine rebounds while sophomore Maddox Wahr drained four deep 3-pointers en route to a 14-point night as well. Junior Alonzo Perry erupted for 10 third-quarter points to help extend the Tornadoes’ lead while Xavier Wahr and CJ Lee added nine points apiece.
Tampa Bay Tech (now 4-5) struggled against a tough Clearwater defense, suffering 21 turnovers on the night.
Titans MVP Ashtin Dore impressed with 17 points, seven assists, four rebounds and two steals. Zion Green added four 3-pointers and 12 points in defeat.
Admiral Farragut, Largo add victories
The Shootout’s other exciting contest came in the opener as Admiral Farragut edged out Boca Ciega, 53-52. Darius Webb was voted Player of the Game for the Blue Jackets (5-5) with his 20-point effort, while Jalen Parker and Duncan Alevok pitched in 12 points apiece in the victory. The Pirates (5-4) were paced by Player of the Game Dayn Radosevich (20 points) and Jakare Carroll-Newton (14 points).
Largo was able to stretch a nine-point halftime lead to as large as 23 in the third quarter, sprinting to a 72-55 victory over Strawberry Crest. Junior Player of the Game Owen Robinson and sophomore Stevmoney Medaries drove the fast-breaking offense of the Packers (5-7) with 20 points each while freshman Adrain Moss added five 3-pointers and 15 points. Roland Williams Jr. earned POG honors for the Chargers (1-14) with 19 points.