EAST LAKE — Five days ago, Dionte Blanch saved East Lake’s season. Down by a point in the final seconds, the Murray State signee got the ball near the sideline. Three defenders converged on the dynamic playmaker.
It did not matter. Blanch got off the shot that swished through the net as time expired.
Fans rushed the court, mobbing Blanch as they all celebrated a Class 6A region quarterfinal win over two-time defending state semifinalist Lehigh.
It was exhilarating. It was memorable. It also was a wakeup call.
The Eagles knew they had to play better on Tuesday. Their preparation was more focused. Their practices were more intense.
That showed when Blanch stepped back for his first shot since hitting the winner days before. He nailed that one, too. And kept hitting them. So did Jordan Hillmon.
The two sharpshooters combined for 60 points to lead East Lake in a 68-36 win over Punta Gorda Charlotte in the region semifinals. The Eagles (25-3) advance to the region final for the second straight season and will host Fort Myers on Friday with a chance to reach the state semifinals for the first time.
“We came out from the jump and punched them in the mouth,” Blanch said. “Every time we do that it’s never a close game.”
Blanch took it upon himself to not only score (he finished with 24 points), but play airtight defense. He wanted the assignment of guarding the Fightin’ Tarpons’ Tre Carroll, a four-star guard who had 48 points in the district final.
“We haven’t prepared this much for a game since I’ve been here,” East Lake coach Britt Taylor said. “We watched game film and changed our game plan completely. The guys probably heard Tre Carroll’s name about 10,000 times the past few days.
“Dionte wanted to guard him. I wasn’t sure about that matchup because I didn’t want Dionte to get into foul trouble. But that’s what he wanted and to hold (Carroll) to seven, maybe nine points, was just an incredible job.”
Still, Blanch could not do it alone. Help came from Hillmon, who led all scorers with 26 points.
“Jordan hit some shots and that really helps because he had been in a slump,” Taylor said. “I challenged him a bit, even moved him to point to get him going a bit. When someone else plays besides Dionte, we’re good.
“Dionte needs a Robin. He got that tonight with Jordan.”
The emergence of Hillmon as a scorer came at an opportune time, especially with Dean Gabrelcik still nursing a sprained ankle that limited him to more of a decoy role on Tuesday.
With each 3-pointer, Hillmon slapped high-fives with teammates, coaches, anyone he could find within striking distance.
“We knew he had to come in and compete,” Hillmon said. “We know we’re a shooting team. We did what we do best.”
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