LAKELAND — The answer to East Lake’s successful state semifinal run lies beyond the 3-point arc. That is where the Eagles’ best shooters camp out, firing so often from long range that their arms seem spring-loaded.
East Lake had attempted 707 3-pointers entering Thursday’s Class 6A semifinal, nearly 100 more than any other team competing at this week’s state tournament.
The bombardment of outside shots is by design.
It starts with Dionte Blanch, the Eagles’ electrifying guard who has signed with Murray State. Often, opponents try to repel Blanch whenever he launches one of his assaults to the basket. As Blanch draws a host of defenders, he flicks the ball to a wide-open teammate out on the perimeter.
Still, there were some concerns about this faraway approach.
The vastness of Lakeland’s RP Funding Center, site of the tournament, can create problems with depth perception on long-range shots. Typically, area teams that make it there schedule a practice at USF or Eckerd College to get used to playing in a bigger arena.
East Lake, though, did not want to alter its routine, especially after going on a magical run to reach the state semifinals for the first time. Instead, the Eagles opted to keep practicing in their gymnasium.
“Business as usual,” East Lake coach Britt Taylor said during the week.
Sticking with what got them there, the Eagles unleashed their usual torrent of 3-point attempts.
Few were successful. In fact, the Eagles made only 6 of 29 from long range.
That made for a long night in a 68-57 loss.
“That was one of the worst shooting performances we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Taylor said. “I don’t know how much it had to do with the arena. The guys just looked uncomfortable taking them. But give credit to Bartow. They took us out of our comfort zone.”
More than the faraway background of fans and the high ceilings, East Lake’s usual deft shooting touch was done in by the Yellow Jackets’ relentless defense.
At the start, Bartow came with a sea of blue and orange, as well as elbows and feet and hands, all hawking toward the ball and creating chaos. The Eagles could not handle it, at least not initially.
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The turnovers led to layups and 3-pointers for the Yellow Jackets’.
It was Bartow’s style, its game.
East Lake (26-4) trailed 16-12 at the end of the first quarter. The Eagles kept fighting. But every time they would rally, the Yellow Jackets had an answer. Midway through the second quarter, East Lake got within striking distance, cutting the deficit to 25-23.
Bartow (29-1) responded by going on a 9-0 run to close out the quarter and went into the half with a 34-23 lead.
It only got worse in the third quarter. The Yellow Jackets stayed aggressive, opening up a 20-point lead. The Eagles continued to battle, cutting it to an 11-point deficit at the end.
Blanch finished with 22 points to lead the Eagles. Jordan Hillmon added 16 points.
Despite the outcome, East Lake can take solace in the run it had the past two seasons. Last year, the Eagles made the region final for the first time and followed that with Thursday’s state appearance.
“I told the guys afterward this is going to be one of the coolest experiences you’ll ever have,” Taylor said. “They were the greatest team to ever wear an East Lake uniform. And they will always hold the distinction of being the first boys team ever from the school to make it here.”