East Lake boys end state basketball drought

Dionte Blanch, who had a game to forget in last year’s region final, doesn’t let history repeat itself Friday night.
East Lake guard Dionte Blanch scores 35 points to lead the Eagles to a 78-61 victory over Fort Myers in a Class 6A region final Friday night.
East Lake guard Dionte Blanch scores 35 points to lead the Eagles to a 78-61 victory over Fort Myers in a Class 6A region final Friday night. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Feb. 29, 2020|Updated Feb. 29, 2020

EAST LAKE — A year ago, East Lake’s Dionte Blanch had one of his worst games. The dynamic playmaker was held to a season-low 12 points in a region final loss, ending the Eagles’ chance to make the state semifinals for the first time.

On Friday, East Lake was in the same round with another opportunity to make school history. It was another shot for Blanch to wipe away the painful memories of a forgettable performance.

“I challenged Dionte,” Eagles coach Britt Taylor said. “I told him he makes this team go. I needed 32 minutes of everything he had inside of him. He’s the best player in the state of Florida, and tonight was his chance to prove it.”

This time, Blanch made amends.

He directed the offense, repeatedly dribbling out of trouble, then finding teammates for open shots. When all else failed Blanch took it upon himself to score. The Murray State commit stopped, then started. He twisted and turned, contorting his body to slither through the narrowest of paths left by defenders on layups that were often accompanied by a foul.

And Blanch did it again. And again.

The senior, who had surpassed the 2,000-point plateau earlier this season, added to that total by leading all scorers with 35 points. Better still, Blanch helped the Eagles reach their ultimate goal by beating Fort Myers 78-61 to earn that elusive trip to Lakeland’s RP Funding Center for the state semifinals.

East Lake (26-3), the No. 4 seed, will play top seed Bartow (28-1) Thursday night at 8 in the Class 6A semifinals.

“I can’t even explain the feeling right now,” Blanch said.

East Lake coach Britt Taylor holds up the net, which he cut off as a precious souvenir following a 78-61 victory over Fort Myers.
East Lake coach Britt Taylor holds up the net, which he cut off as a precious souvenir following a 78-61 victory over Fort Myers. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

On the opening tip, Blanch took the ball, then drove to the basket to give the Eagles the lead. That helped ignite East Lake, which took control and went ahead by as many as 10.

Facing such a deep deficit at the start seemed to spell doom for the Green Wave, who were coming off an epic five-overtime win over St. Petersburg in the region semifinals three nights before.

Fort Myers, though, never looked fatigued, at least in the first half. After falling behind by double digits, the Green Wave kept chipping away at the lead. They scored inside and hit mid-range jumpers.

The Eagles, meanwhile, got into a funk. Shots on wide-open looks clanked off the rim. There were errant passes, coupled with lapses on defense.

For a five-minute stretch in the second quarter, Fort Myers went on a 13-0 run and went into the half with a 32-30 lead. Still, there was no screaming or stomping in the locker room from Taylor.

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“I wasn’t worried at all,” he said. “We’ll go through droughts. But we got about 10 or 11 really good looks in the first half. Dionte is going to keep passing the ball to everyone else. It’s just a matter of them hitting two or three of those and opening everything up for us.”

Sure enough, Blanch kept feeding the Eagles arsenal of sharpshooters. In the second half, their aim was perfect.

Jordan Hillmon hit 3-pointers. So did Dean Gabrelcik. And Noah Chatman.

Others contributed, too. Henry Hurst rebounded with authority. Justin Kruszewski sprinted down the court on layups.

Everything worked. The slim deficit quickly went away.

“I knew I had to stay aggressive and keep attacking,” Blanch said. “And we just had to keep shooting because they were eventually going to fall.”

Hillmon punctuated things by hitting a pair of long-range shots, then moving underneath the basket on a fancy move to lay the ball in for two more points. He pumped his fists, kicked his feet, high-fived teammates standing on the sideline with every made shot.

“We just wanted to get everyone involved,” said Hillmon, who finished with 22 points. “When we do that, nobody can stop us.”

After the final buzzer, once the celebrations subsided, a ladder was placed underneath the basket. Each player took turns snipping a piece of the net as a keepsake.

The last player to climb to the top was Blanch, who held the string aloft for everyone to see.

Taylor followed and clutched the remainder of the net in his hand.

Five years ago, Taylor went to Lakeland to watch one of his AAU players in a state semifinal game. The setting, the intensity, made him want to be a part of it.

“Now, I’m here,” Taylor said. “It’s a dream. I still don’t know if it’s really set in yet, but this is pretty incredible.”

State boys basketball

At RP Funding Center, Lakeland.

2A: No. 4 Bayshore Christian vs. No. 1 Orlando Christian Prep, noon Wednesday

4A: No. 4 Lake Highland Prep vs. No. 1 Tampa Catholic, noon Thursday

6A: No. 4 East Lake vs. No. 1 Bartow, 8 p.m. Thursday