By Eugenio Torrens
The Land O’ Lakes boys basketball claimed its first district championship since 2001 by beating Mitchell 58-56 on Feb. 10.
The Gators (21-6) squeaked by the Mustangs (20-7) in the Class 6A-District 10 title game in Mitchell’s gym, giving the central Pasco County program its first home playoff game in more than 10 years.
“(It’s) just exciting for the kids,” said Land O’ Lakes coach David Puhalski. “They weren’t even old enough probably to remember that.”
The victory was not without its nerve-wracking moments, including a game-winning layup by Jackson Cannon of a pass from Ernest McClendon.
“Definitely the last pass by Ernest was slow motion,” said Cannon, who finished with six points. “I made the last shot, but that’s not what won the game. Defense won the game.”
The final buzzer sounded as Cannon’s shot trickled through the basket, but the referees huddled together and after a group discussion added 2.1 seconds to the clock.
The Mustangs’ resurrection was unfulfilled as Jake Driscoll’s last-second heave bounced off the backboard and the front of the rim before falling harmlessly to the ground.
The Gators beat Mitchell in both meetings this season, an 11-point win on the road and a 19-point triumph at home.
This time, with the district championship at stake, the Mustangs gave Land O’ Lakes all they could handle — for 29.9 minutes anyway.
“That was close,” said Cannon, a senior forward. “(Driscoll) almost scored.”
Even the first half had an exciting finish.
Mitchell took a 23-21 lead with less than a minute to go when Bernie Conley drained a 3-pointer. McClendon responded with his own circus shot, sinking a trey of his own while being fouled.
McClendon made the and-one to give his team a 25-23 halftime lead. The senior guard scored 17 of the team’s 25 first-half points and finished the night with 20.
“I had to come out strong,” McClendon said. “I knew Driscoll was going to come out strong, so I felt I should try to match up with him.”
The Gators went more to their inside game in the second half. Center Victor Obi, the only Land O’ Lakes starter who isn’t a senior, finished with 14 points.
“It’s a great feeling,” Obi said. “We’ve been planning for this all year. It was our goal to win districts this year. We had our struggles in the beginning, but finally came through and conquered in the end.”
The Gators built a seven-point lead after three quarters, but the Mustangs rallied to tie when Jordan Dong made one of two free throws late to set up Land O’ Lakes’ final play with 10.5 ticks left. Puhalski was a bit nervous with Driscoll, who averages 23.9 points, on the court with any time left.
“Jake Driscoll on the floor, 2.1 seconds is a lifetime,” Puhalski said. “It ain’t over until that ball hits the ground.”
The Gators can add 2011-12 to the banner hanging in their gym, but a pair of early season losses threatened to derail the title run. Land O’ Lakes dropped its first two contests of the year, including a 38-point L at home to Wesley Chapel.
“Coach (Puhalski) gets on us a lot because we haven’t won (a district title) in so long,” McClendon said. “At the beginning of the season, he said we were sitting on something special, but we had those first two losses — so that sort of made us second-guess. But we proved ourselves.”