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Chase Farmer sparks Land O’ Lakes in playoff opener

The Gators continue to try and extend coach Dave Puhalski’s final season.
Land O' Lakes coach Dave Puhalski, seen here in a game earlier this season, will be retiring once the Gators are done in the playoffs. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times]

LAND O’ LAKES — It took until deep into the third quarter for Land O’ Lakes to shake Auburndale in Thursday’s Class 5A, Region 2 quarterfinal, but once it happened, the effect was overwhelming.

Chase Farmer led the putaway sequence with 10 of his 25 points, and the Gators (21-5) rolled into the region semis, where they will try to hand retiring coach Dave Puhalski a first-ever trip to the region finals.

As the No. 3 seed, Land O’ Lakes will travel to No. 2 Orlando Jones, which had no issues with Lake Gibson, 63-43 Thursday.

“I really want to go to states, for coach. His last year, we gotta send him out with a bang,” said Farmer. “If we’re making shots and we’re playing defense, we can beat them.”

It was fellow senior Mekhi Perry, normally the leader, doing the shotmaking in the first half. Perry went 3-for-4 from beyond the arc in the second quarter as the Gators went on their first big run.

Back-to-back 3s from Perry erased a span of eight straight Gator misses from the floor, turning a five-point deficit into a lead they never relinquished. Land O’ Lakes answered Auburndale’s 10-0 run with a 13-0 stretch to the end the half up 23-15.

The Bloodhounds (14-14) ended up going more than 12 minutes without a field goal, but due to slowing the pace and some trips to the free-throw line, kept within striking range. That all changed when Farmer drove to the basket and was fouled with 10 seconds left in the third quarter.

It began an 18-2 run that took barely more than four minutes, and was all about Farmer and the fast break.

“Chase sparked us. He played a heck of a game,” said Puhalski. “He picked up the scoring there. We talked about out transition game at halftime, but we didn’t get it going there until late third, early fourth. And our defense only gave up 36 points, and we rebounded the ball.”

Brett Gwinn and Malik Handfield led the Gators’ rebounding effort with six apiece.

Auburndale focused its defense on Perry, who had averaged 27 points across his past three games, 21 for the season. He was held to 15 Thursday but all too glad to watch Farmer take over.

The dynamic senior scored twice during the early fourth-quarter push, adding another dunk to Farmer’s school-record total with a high-flying display. Levi Downing’s jump shot further sent the crowd into an uproar, capping an electrifying seven-point run in the first 90 seconds of the period. Out of an Auburndale timeout, Farmer drained a 3, and the run ended with a tremendous take/jumper from Perry to make it 49-26.

Auburndale’s top threat, Dorian Allen, scored 11 but that was seven below his average. The Bloodhounds went 0-for-9 in the second quarter while being outscored 13-2. Zaylen Perry, a freshman, did have a nice second half with eight points and nine rebounds to finish with a double double (10/11).

Land O’ Lakes’ tremendous tandem will have to be at its best next week when the Gators visit Orlando Jones. The Tigers started 0-7 but are on a 12-1 streak currently, and Puhalski thinks they’re they best in the region despite Sebring (which edged Auburndale in that district’s championship) being the top seed.

“They’re a very tough team. As soon as they got their football players they only lost one the rest of the way,” said Puhalski. “But we’ll prepare for it. We can do it.”

Region semifinals

Games 7 p.m. Tuesday.

7A: No. 3 Wharton at No. 2 Windermere

6A: No. 5 Charlotte at No. 1 East Lake

6A: No. 7 St. Petersburg at No. 3 Fort Myers

6A: No. 7 Lakeland at No. 3 Hillsborough

5A: No. 4 Port Charlotte at No. 1 Clearwater

5A: No. 3 Naples at No. 2 Jesuit

5A: No. 3 Land O’ Lakes at No. 2 Orlando Jones

4A: No. 5 Lakewood at No. 1 Tampa Catholic

4A: No. 4 Anclote at No. 1 Lake Highland Prep

3A: No. 4 Calvary Christian at No. 1 Community School of Naples

3A: No. 7 Seffner Christian at No. 6 Fort Myers Canterbury

2A: No. 3 Cambridge Christian at No. 2 Bayshore Christian