EAGLES 55 GREEN DEVILS 50
EAST LAKE – The stands were packed, the crowd was loud and East Lake didn’t disappoint.
The Eagles (24-4) will make their first region final appearance in program history after controlling rival St. Petersburg (24-5) for most of Tuesday night’s Class 8A region semifinal and winning 55-50.
“We had a bunch of goals to start the season and we’ve accomplished four out of five so far,” East Lake coach Britt Taylor said. “I told them in the locker room that we’re not done yet, but they definitely need to celebrate.”
The Eagles trailed only once, down 4-3 early in the opening quarter, and built leads as big as 13 points. Point guard and team leader Dionte Blanch went for a game-high 23 points, his 19th game scoring 20-plus, and East Lake drained seven 3-pointers to St. Pete’s two.
Sophomore Dean Gabrelcik opened the night’s scoring with his first of four 3s from the top of the key and the Eagles’ seventh and final downtown bucket sealed the game. Leading 49-43 with a minute to play, junior Jordan Hillmon pulled up in the left corner in front of East Lake’s bench off a St. Pete turnover and drained a shot that pushed the advantage to nine points.
“It’s one of those, ‘No, no, no! Okay, good shot,’ ” Taylor said of Hillmon’s decision to take the 3 rather than slow things down, drain the clock and force St. Pete to foul. “And they have to play that way. They have to play with unlimited confidence. That’s the reason why we’ve been successful. If Jordan and Dakota (Speed-Ferris) are open they have to pull the trigger.”
About three minutes prior to Hillmon’s huge 3, Gabrelcik knocked down his fourth from the left wing right after St. Pete tied the game at 43-43. The game hadn’t been even since 4-4, but Alfonso Franklin’s baby hook in the lane capped a 10-3 Green Devils run to start the fourth quarter.
The Eagles went right down and answered with Gabrelcik’s 3 and St. Pete never got any closer.
Tuesday’s win gave East Lake its third straight victory over St. Pete after losing 10 in a row. The Green Devils beat the Eagles by double digits the first two games this season but East Lake discovered its winning formula in the Pinellas County Athletic Conference championship game, repeated it to win the District 8A-10 title and did it again in regionals.
East Lake was playing in its second-ever region semifinal whereas St. Pete’s played in the state final four three times in the past four years.
“You could see we were a little tight,” Taylor said. “I’m not going to lie, we were a little tight. They’ve been there before and we haven’t. It’s a credit to Dionte. He’s our rock and when things get tight we can just put the ball in his hands and he makes things a lot easier for everybody else.”
Blanch did a little bit of everything Tuesday night, including throwing down a pair of alley-oop dunks that charged up the big crowd.
“It was electric, right?” Taylor said of the packed house. “That was pretty cool. I kept telling them to really appreciate the moment and don’t take anything for granted. I’ve been here for 10 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. The gym was just absolutely rocking.”
East Lake was close to having to fend off St. Pete without its floor general when Blanch was whistled for his fourth foul less than a minute into the final quarter.
“I looked up there and there was 7 minutes and 30 seconds to go,” Taylor said of Blanch’s foul trouble. “I was like, ohhh boy. But he doesn’t come out of the game. He knows he’s going to play 32 minutes and he’s smart enough to know. That’s where he doesn’t get enough credit. He’s just so smart. A couple times he drove and they were about to take a charge and he would just bring that thing out. He did an incredible job tonight.”
Blanch managed to avoid picking up his fifth foul and added six points and three rebounds during the final quarter. His 23 points were followed by Gabrelcik’s 12 and Connor Geer’s nine.
St. Pete got 11 points from Terell Strickland and nine each from Deondre Earley and Ray Perry.
East Lake will travel to Bradenton Lakewood Ranch for Friday night’s Class 8A Region 3 final. The Mustangs (22-6) beat Fort Myers Riverdale 44-26 and are playing in their fifth straight postseason. Lakewood Ranch reached the state final four two years ago by beating St. Pete in the region final.
The Eagles have won 11 straight dating back to a 71-70 loss in the Seminole Shootout Feb. 19 against Sebring.
SP – 9 – 13 – 11 – 17 --- 50
EL – 15 – 8 – 16 – 16 --- 55
St. Petersburg (24-5)
Terell Strickland – 11 points, 6 rebounds
Deondre Earley – 9 points, 8 rebounds (2 offensive)
Ray Perry – 9 points, 4 rebounds (3 offensive)
Omarie Sherrod – 8 points
East Lake (24-4)
Dionte Blanch – Game-High 23 points, 7 rebounds
Dean Gabrelcik – 12 points (4 3-pointers)
Connor Geer – 9 points, 3 rebounds