Wesley Chapel was down seven points with 2:40 to play, facing the possibility of going from back-to-back final fours to a first-round playoff exit. But the Wildcats rallied to score the final 10 and win 61-57 at East Ridge to start a new playoff run on first-year coach Doug Greseth's 47th birthday.
"I told them before the game that I didn't want any money, any presents. I want a win tonight. That's all I want," said Greseth, who had lost in the first round in five playoff appearances with other schools. "This is one of my greatest birthdays ever, if not the best."
The Wildcats (22-5) trailed 56-49 when Mike Auman had the first of two key steals and baskets, the latter of which pulled Wesley Chapel within 57-56 with 1:50 left. Mario Otkins gave the Wildcats a 58-57 lead with 33 seconds left, and his battle for a rebound on a missed free throw caused East Ridge's Andre Coleman to be called for traveling with 11 seconds left.
Coleman, who had missed two free throws with 1:01 to play and airballed a shot with 17 seconds left, slammed the ball in disgust and was called for a technical. Chase Bussey, who scored a game-high 23, hit two free throws to seal it.
"These kids deserve so much credit. They just gutted it out," Greseth said. "A lot of people, down seven on the road with two minutes to go, they're going to quit. My kids never quit though, and this was an unbelievable comeback and a great win."
This year's Wildcats had little in common with last year's team, which graduated five starters. Thursday's win, coupled with Lake Wales' 72-44 win against Tampa Bay Tech, means the Wildcats can host a regional semifinal Tuesday against Lake Wales.
"I kept saying it in all the timeouts: We've been here before," said Bussey, who scored 10 of Wesley Chapel's 25 in an explosive third quarter. "I said, "Let's go out and do this,' and we weren't nervous at all."
Wesley Chapel had hit 3 of 11 free throws until the final 17 seconds, when East Ridge committed five fouls in five seconds to put the Wildcats on the line.
"We did not play well, did not play up to our potential," said coach Mike Clutter, whose Knights finished 19-8. "We took a step backwards tonight, stood around flatfooted watching them shoot the ball, and that's not the way we've been playing all year."
Rams top Bears with No. 1 team up next
NEW PORT RICHEY - It started like this:
"I made a statement to the kids two weeks ago when I wasn't really happy with the way they were playing," Ridgewood coach Gary Anders said. "I wanted them to know if I had my way, I would like to play Winter Haven on our floor. So that old saying, be careful what you wish for, you may get it?"
Anders gets his wish Tuesday. That's when Ridgewood, a 53-40 winner over Central, hosts the No. 1-ranked team in 4A: undefeated Winter Haven (25-0).
The Rams (22-5) didn't really put Central (18-11) away until the third quarter, using a 9-0 run to outscore the Bears 22-13. Center Andrew Reed chipped in six of his 10 third-quarter points in that run and finished with a team-high 16 and alley-oop dunk.
Coach John Sedlack said Central had a chance to cut the lead to less than five at the end of the first half, but fouled Reed and never recovered. Sedlack praised center Anthony Wright, who scored 10 and guarded Reed, the 6-foot-7 East Tennessee State signee.
"Obviously he was overmatched," Sedlack said. "But he gave a lot going in and I was really proud of him going up against a Division I player."
Alex Ruoff's 20 points paced the Bears, while Brendan Geronimo chipped in 10 for the Rams.
"Maybe I'm crazy, but I think the opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the state is a privilege," Anders said. "We have played our way in to this opportunity, and that's what it's all about to me."