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Clearwater boys stay true to themselves, reach region final

The Tornadoes are playing with a confidence that has them one win from the final four.
Clearwater coach Kris Foote, seen here in a game earlier this season, is happy to have another home game: “We get good crowds, they’ve been pumped up, and home-court advantage is big to keep things as close as possible to routine." [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Clearwater coach Kris Foote, seen here in a game earlier this season, is happy to have another home game: “We get good crowds, they’ve been pumped up, and home-court advantage is big to keep things as close as possible to routine." [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

CLEARWATER — Steady growth, maximum effort, intelligent play — all built on one motto: Be yourself.

Coach Kris Foote’s stamp on the Clearwater High boys basketball program became apparent with last year’s district championship — its first in eight years — and has only grown stronger through a 24-win campaign this year.

“We’re not going to make too many adjustments for teams, we just want to be ourselves,” Foote said. “I think the kids are doing a good job at buying into it. Don’t bring any other player beside the one we know. That’s what we need from them.”

The most recent — and most impressive — example was Tuesday night’s 80-44 pasting of Port Charlotte in Class 5A, Region 3 semifinal play.

The visiting Pirates (17-10) sported a youthful squad in 2020 with just one senior, but was the team that toughed out a low-scoring, seven-point playoff victory over the Tornadoes on this same court last season. But there was no shot of that happening Tuesday as top-seeded Clearwater (24-4) owned the floor from baseline to baseline.

It was an all too familiar pattern. Pressure defense from junior Nelson Taylor and C.J. Lee would force a turnover or a bad shot and the Tornadoes were off. Senior Max Jones would cannily direct the attack, everyone on the floor would get a touch, and eventually the possession would pay off.

“We’re moving the ball more and believing in each other with the ball,” said Lee, a sophomore that finished with a game-high 19 points, including four 3-pointers, three steals and three blocked shots. “There is confidence in everybody on the team.”

Lee, Taylor (17 points on 8-of-10 shooting, seven steals and six rebounds) and Jones (14 points on 5-of-6 shooting, seven rebounds and five assists) triggered a 14-0 run that changed Port Charlotte’s last lead of the game into a 24-12 deficit 2½ minutes into second-quarter action.

Getting Xavier Wahr (15 points, 6 of 7 from the field) and A.J. Wright (five points and five rebounds) involved stretched the gap early in the third quarter, then Taylor struck for 10 fourth-quarter points to finally invoke the running-clock mercy rule.

As a team, Clearwater shot 56 percent (30 of 54) and had 17 steals that allowed fourth-seeded Port Charlotte just 35 field-goal attempts.

“We work on it every day in practice,” Lee said.

“It’s just doing the little things like I ask them to do on the floor, just doing little bitty things,” Foote said. “If they see (me) doing the little things, they see me working hard, they have no reason not to work hard. That’s all I do; I make sure I show myself and carry myself the way I want them carrying themselves.”

And now Foote and the Tornadoes have carried themselves into a Friday home date with third seed Naples — a 62-46 victor over No. 2 Jesuit.

“We’re hard to beat here,” Foote said. “We get good crowds, they’ve been pumped up, and home-court advantage is big to keep things as close as possible to routine. They come in and do nothing different. It’s another home game.”

The only thing not routine is that this one is for a region title and a trip to Lakeland and the Class 5A final four.

Boys basketball region finals

Games at 7 p.m. Friday.

6A: No. 3 Fort Myers at No. 1 East Lake

6A: No. 3 Hillsborough at No. 1 Bartow

5A: No. 3 Naples at No. 1 Clearwater

4A: No. 6 Titusville Astronaut at No. 1 Tampa Catholic

3A: No. 7 Seffner Christian at No. 1 Community School of Naples

2A: No. 2 Bayshore Christian at No. 1 First Baptist

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