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Citrus can excel on tough road

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003

After Citrus' 55-51 win over St. Augustine Nease on Thursday in the Class 3A region quarterfinals, Panthers coach Bud Beech was asked if he thought the Hurricanes had any chance of advancing further.

The veteran didn't hesitate.

"Yes," he said. "They've got a lot of balance. They've got good shooters, good penetrators and good size. They've got a lot of potential."

Beech is somewhat of an authority.

A year ago he led Nease to its first state title. His opinion means something.

But even with Nease out of the way, there are major roadblocks ahead.

On Tuesday night Citrus, ranked seventh in the state, plays No. 4 Orlando Jones on the road. Jones is in the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season. For perspective, consider that Citrus' victory Thursday was its first in the postseason since 1961.

If Citrus wins that game, it might face No. 1 Eustis.

Folks, it's a whole new ballgame. Once you get to the round of 16, the patsies are gone.

There are two ways to look at this. One would be that Citrus drew a bad draw. On the other hand, if the Hurricanes get past Jones and Eustis, they probably will be the team to beat at the final four.

Against Nease, Citrus played perhaps its best first half of the season. The Hurricanes outhustled, outshot and outdefended the Panthers.

"I think their speed and quickness was a factor early," Beech said. "Our defenders couldn't get themselves squared up."

Citrus led 30-18 at one point, 30-21 at the half. Nease chipped away in the second half until it was 46-45 Citrus with 3:29 left. The Hurricanes responded by hitting 9 of 10 free throws in the final 2:51 to ice it.

In many games this season Citrus put the hammer down on teams in the second half. But Nease didn't quit. And in the Panthers' effort, Citrus can learn something.

Things get tough on the road, especially in the playoffs. When the ball doesn't bounce your way, you can give up, or fight. Nease fought and nearly won despite the fact it appeared Citrus had the better team. The Panthers had been in tough situations before, and it showed, because they never panicked.

Citrus beefed up its schedule this season to include top-flight teams Leesburg, Ridgewood and Wesley Chapel. But Nease played in a much stronger district than Citrus, one in which any of four teams could have won the title.

The Panthers had been through wars and Citrus had not. That Citrus held on to win says a lot.

The Hurricanes could have wilted. But when they needed to make shots, they did. And when they needed a defensive stand, they got it.

Nease isn't what it was last season. Few will dispute that. But make no mistake, Thursday's win was huge.

Panthers guard T.J. Paterick might be the best player Citrus faces. He scored 21 and was brilliant in every aspect. But the Hurricanes had little problem with the rest of Nease's lineup.

Word has it that Jones is different. Here's what South Sumter coach Keith Hileman said about the Tigers after they beat his squad 80-50 Thursday: "I don't think our kids have seen so many athletic players jump so high.".

And remember, South Sumter was led by Earl Everett, a University of Florida football recruit.

Citrus, by the way, struggled in a recent win against South Sumter. You can't get caught up in comparing scores because so much is about matchups, but it's obvious Jones is solid.

Meantime, over in Eustis, the Panthers routed Cocoa 85-33.

Welcome to the playoffs.

Keith Niebuhr can be reached at 860-7337 or online at niebuhr@sptimes.com .

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