By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 1, 2003
LAND O'LAKES -- It was the most important game Land O'Lakes had played in nearly two years and the Gators did not falter.
But boy, did they cut it close.
Land O'Lakes held off Mitchell 40-38 in Friday night's crucial Class 4A, District 8 battle for the tournament's No. 2 seed.
The Gators (10-9 overall, 7-3 in 4A-8) swept the Mustangs (12-8, 6-5) for the season and can secure the tournament's second seed with a win Tuesday against Hudson.
But this Land O'Lakes-Mitchell round was much better than the first.
Both entered as Pasco County's most improved squads, and it showed in a tight, well-played contest. A game the Gators wanted to keep low-scoring, slowing the tempo to a crawl in the final minutes to counter the Mustangs' superior speed.
"I thought our execution was much better and I think we showed pretty good patience," Land O'Lakes coach Dave Puhalski said. "We didn't try to force it against that zone.
"Here we said, 'We'll take a 30-point game, we don't need to be in the 50s."'
But poor free-throw shooting almost cost his team.
Land O'Lakes was 8 of 21 at the line overall and 2-for-8 while guarding a slim fourth-quarter lead.
After both teams traded the lead in the second half, the game came down to a flurry of plays in the last three minutes.
That's when Logan Payne's short jumper along the baseline gave Land O'Lakes a 38-35 lead. Payne extended the margin to four with a free throw with 1:17 left.
Mitchell's Jason Weaver sank a 3-pointer 3 feet behind the line to cut the lead to one with 51 seconds left.
From there, the Gators got even colder at the foul line, hitting 1 of 5 in the last 32 seconds. They finally got the lead back up to two when Brett Ruvolo sank the second of his two free throws with 10 seconds left.
Mustangs freshman point guard D.J. Crosby sprinted through the lane on the game's final play but couldn't get his layup to fall at the buzzer.
It was a disappointing loss for a team that overcame an eight-point deficit to lead by four in the third.
"We didn't get any calls our way," Mitchell coach Dick Buckenroth said. "I feel bad for the kids. Anything that could go wrong, did."