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East Lake-Charlotte goes down to the wire, but home team can’t prevail

There will be no return trip to the state final four this season for the Eagles.
A year ago, East Lake trounced Charlotte. This season, the Tarpons prevailed 59-56 on the Eagles' court.
A year ago, East Lake trounced Charlotte. This season, the Tarpons prevailed 59-56 on the Eagles' court. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 27
Updated Feb. 27

EAST LAKE — The way East Lake was playing in Friday night’s Class 6A region final, only a near-perfect effort would deny the Eagles a return trip to Lakeland.

But with powerful motivation that had been simmering for a year, Charlotte delivered that effort. Converting clutch play after clutch play down the stretch, the Tarpons surpassed East Lake’s torrid production and prevailed 59-56, earning their first berth in the state final four.

In the 2020 region semifinals, Charlotte made the same two-hour journey northward but came to an ignoble fate, falling by 32 points to Dionte Bostick and the Eagles.

“This group of players, these seniors, wanted to be back here in this gym and do a better job than we did last year,” said an emotionally drained Tom Massolio, head coach of the now 21-9 Tarpons. “We felt we didn’t play well last year and, no disrespect to (East Lake), we wanted to come and at least compete. We competed (Friday).”

No doubt, especially considering Charlotte fended off one of the Eagles’ patented lightning-fast runs. This time, it was a 12-2 blitz in the second quarter driven by 3-pointers from seniors Dean Gabrelcik (15 points, seven rebounds) and Mikey Shane (five points) to flip a five-point Tarpons lead to a 27-22 East Lake lead.

More long-distance offense from junior Noah Chatman (three 3s, 13 points) and sophomore Henry Hurst (eight points, six boards) combined with impressive paint work from senior Anthony Bittar (15 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists) to push the Eagles’ lead up to eight points at 38-30 with 3:37 left in the third quarter.

That’s when Charlotte’s pride — and its rarely-seen triangle-and-two defense — started paying dividends.

A pair of 3s from junior DJ Woods (14 points) and another from sophomore John Gamble (12 points) sparked an 11-3 run that drew the Tarpons even at 41 going to the final eight minutes.

“We’ve been like that in the playoffs, in close games this year, we’ve won,” Massolio said. “Our goal was to get close in the fourth quarter and we did that.”

From there, continued impressive interior work from 6-foot-8 Florida Atlantic commit Tre Carroll (game-high 25 points, 19 rebounds) joined with 3s from Woods and Gamble to put the visitors up five with 1:42 left.

East Lake (26-2) didn’t wilt, drawing even on 3s from Hurst and Chatman with 36 seconds left.

But the Tarpons produced just enough from the free-throw line, hitting 4-of-8, and more than enough with their defense. The Eagles didn’t get another shot thanks to a timely Jordan Santiago offensive rebound plus East Lake’s only turnover of the quarter.

In ultimate pressure-packed production, Charlotte shot 8-of-9 over the final nine minutes to exact its revenge and advance.

“I think it was more (the Tarpons) earning the victory,” said East Lake coach Britt Taylor. “We still got a lot of great looks, and when it came down to the end, (Charlotte) hit some huge shots. It was just a great basketball game.

“I’m super proud of Dean (Gabrelcik), he accomplished so much for our program,” Taylor said of the senior who capped a 1,300-point career Friday. “He and the other seniors gave everything they had and changed the culture of basketball for us. I wish their careers could have ended in Lakeland.”