ST. PETERSBURG — Discipline made all of the difference.
Over the first three quarters Friday night, St. Petersburg was playing with passion, purpose and precision. Stoked by the perpetual energy of senior point guard Ray Perry (seven points, eight assists) and the interior scoring of junior Carson Wood (game-high 20 points) and senior Kareem Grant (12 points, 13 rebounds), the host Green Devils built leads over undefeated East Lake as large as 15 points in the first quarter and nine with just nine minutes left in the game.
But the Eagles (15-0) have based their basketball success on discipline. Despite missing two key players — and riding its five starters all 32 minutes as a result — East Lake picked apart St. Petersburg on both ends of the court. Taking its first lead of the night with 57.3 seconds remaining, East Lake held on for a clutch 73-70 victory.
“St. Pete punched us in the mouth and played as hard as heck, we knew that would happen coming in,” Eagles coach Britt Taylor said. “We had to respond.”
That answer became more difficult with sophomores Henry Hurst and Justin Kruszewski on the shelf, but Taylor wasn’t going to let that become an excuse.
“Everybody’s battling adversity in 2020-2021,” Taylor said. “We have to be ready.”
Riding a 14-game win streak with 19 wins in its past 20, East Lake was. A pair of Countryside transfers got the ball rolling, fighting off a hot start from sophomore Quez Curry (four 3-pointers, 14 points) to ride two late third-quarter 3s from senior Mikey Shane (12 points on four 3s, five rebounds).
Then senior Anthony Bittar went to work.
When staunch Green Devil defender Omarie Sherrod (14 points, five rebounds, three assists) fouled out early in the fourth quarter, Bittar took advantage. Playing isolation ball, Bittar tore up the paint for eight of his 19 points, combining with a huge 3 from senior Cam Wade (12 points, seven rebounds, five assists) to draw the Eagles within 70-69 with 1:43 left.
“When (Sherrod) fouled out, my coaches said, ‘Attack him, attack him. Get to the hole and finish’,” Bittar said. “I just attacked and got a bunch of buckets.”
“We just amped up our pressure so (the Devils) would have some turnovers, then we hit some big shots,” Shane said. “The momentum switched.”
And while the offense for St. Petersburg (12-2) vanished — 0-for-7 from the floor and 1-for-7 from the free-throw line over the last three minutes) — junior Noah Chatman (11 points, six rebounds) took a perfect wraparound pass from Wade for a layup and the lead in the last minute. Then Wade drained a pair of pressure-packed free throws with 12.9 seconds left. Tack on some one-and-done defensive rebounding and shot-blocking from senior Dean Gabrelcik (19 points, six rebounds), and the comeback was complete.
“The kids never quit, hats off to them,” Taylor said. “This was nothing the coaches did, no X’s and O’s, this win was all heart and toughness.”
“We had them on the ropes in our gym but we were so undisciplined,” said Green Devils coach Chris Blackwell of a 12-turnover second half after committing only four in the first half. “(East Lake) isn’t deep and we had them gassed, but the key is they’re disciplined. That’s their team, they’re never out of a game. Our discipline went out the door and (East Lake) kept their composure.”