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Nichols savors 'special' win

The Lecanto coach survives battle on his alma mater's court.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2002

LECANTO -- A day after unheralded Lecanto knocked off Gulf 44-42 in the Class 4A, Region 2 quarterfinals on the Buccaneers' home court, Panthers coach Chris Nichols was all smiles.

Can you blame him?

Nichols is a 1975 Gulf graduate. Besides having his father and two brothers in attendance, Nichols saw the faces of old friends, ex-teammates and former teachers.

Then there's this: Nichols' mother, Elma, and sister, Kim, are buried in a cemetery less than a mile from the school. Both passed away four years ago.

"I've got to believe there was something there," Nichols said. "That meant a lot to me. It was a big, emotional thing for me. It was kind of special."

Nichols' first trip to his alma mater as a head coach left his heart racing until mid-day Friday. In a back-and-forth tussle, Lecanto finally pulled it out after the Bucs missed a layup just before time expired.

Dalton Meyers' basket with 8 seconds remaining proved to be the winner.

"The players were very fired up (after the game)," Nichols said. "In the locker room, it was tremendous. All the kids are very excited, and they should be. This is big for our program and big for all of the individuals on the team."

The win, the Panthers' first in the playoffs since 1998, gave Lecanto (16-10) a school record for victories. It plays at Port Orange Atlantic on Tuesday in a region semifinal.

Gulf (23-7) entered the postseason after capturing its first district title in 39 years.

"If you don't feel like you have a chance at this time of year, you might as well not go," Nichols said. "We thought we had a chance, and we thought we had a good plan."

Meyers' heroics began long before his late-game shot. The senior center finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, team-high totals and well above his season averages of 10 points and 4.5 rebounds. Guard Kyle Hamilton scored 12 points, forward Curtis Laytart had 9 and forward Teddy Gauthier had 4. Point guard Landon Baize didn't score but recorded five assists.

"We got it inside to Dalton and made them pay," Nichols said. "He's had some ups and downs this season. He's kind of like the team."

Right now, Lecanto is up.

The Panthers have won three of four -- the only defeat coming in the District 7 final to state-ranked Leesburg, a squad they lost to three times during the regular season. Those defeats likely helped prepare Lecanto for the playoffs.

"We try to win games that count," Nichols said, "not count the games we win."

For the record, the Panthers are two victories away from the final four. But who's counting.

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