TARPON SPRINGS — The drought is over.
Tarpon Springs, spurred by a game-changing 18-1 run to open the second half, can claim a postseason victory for the first time since 1947 after beating Hernando High, 70-60.
“Sixty-seven years,” said Tarpon Springs coach Jerry Woodka. “This community deserves it. I'm so happy for these kids and my school.”
As for visiting Hernando, the Leopards will have to wait another year to end their own winless skid that dates back to 1967.
The victory moves Tarpon Springs into a Class 5A region semifinal Tuesday night at Nature Coast Tech.
“It feels good because we've been working all year to try and make something happen,” said point guard Trai Halton. “We're trying to make a run to states or at least as far as we can.”
Getting to Step 2 in that process required Halton stepping up his game once again for the Spongers.
“Our team plays well if Trai plays well,” Woodka said of his point man. “If he's hitting his shots and penetrating and passing the ball, we play well.”
A standing-room-only crowd packed into the Spongers' cozy gym was treated to quite a few highlight-reel moments from Halton along the way Thursday night. The athletic junior brought fans to their feet with a mix of shifty ball handing, slashing drives and pull-up jumpers.
“It helps because coach lets me play my game,” Halton said. “If I'm feeling my shot, I don't have to hesitate to shoot it. I just feel more confident. But I trust all 13 people on the team, so if they're open I'm going to give it up to them.”
Thursday night's turning point came at halftime. The Spongers regrouped and refocused after turning in a sloppy second-quarter performance that allowed Hernando to take a 35-28 lead into the break. Nine first-half turnovers and a lack of urgency getting back on defense resulted in the surrendering of numerous transition buckets.
“We had a nice talk at halftime,” Woodka said. “We were losing, we weren't playing very well and we decided we had to pound it in the post a little bit.”
The Spongers' combined presence in the block of Scottie James, Mitch Wilcox and junior Israel Atkins stepped up on both ends for the final 16 minutes.
“We stopped the fast breaks, rebounded a lot better and just played better defense in general,” said James, who came up one blocked shot short of a triple-double, recording 18 points, 10 rebounds and nine stuffs. Wilcox added 16 points, with 12 coming in the second half.
Although Tarpon Springs' big third-quarter run produced a double-digit lead, the Spongers didn't pull away until the final period.
Hernando's Mark Wilson opened the fourth with a 3-pointer from the right corner that cut the Leopards' deficit to 51-47. The Spongers wasted no time re-inflating its advantage, though, going on a 7-0 run keyed by Wilcox's and-one in the paint.
Joel Wilson led the Leopards with 21 points, followed by his brother Mark's 18.
Next Tuesday night's game in Brooksville will be a rematch of Dec. 30's Nature Coast Christmas Tournament championship game won by Tarpon Springs, 53-50.
“We're going to Nature Coast, they won by 13, and it's going to be a battle,” Woodka said, referring to the Sharks' 13-point quarterfinal win over Gulf High on Thursday.
HHS - 17 – 18 – 9 – 16 --- 60
TSHS - 21 – 7 – 23 – 19 --- 70
Joel Wilson – 21 points, 7 rebounds
Mark Wilson – 18 points (3 3-pointers)
Mike Jones – 6 points, 4 rebounds
Tarpon Springs (27-3)
Trai Halton – 21 points (3 3-pointers)
Scottie James – 11 points, 10 rebounds, 9 blocks
Mitch Wilcox – 16 points, 4 rebounds