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Devils' turnaround comes swiftly

St. Petersburg has put ugly three-game skid behind it as it tries to reach first region final since '72.

JOHN C. COTEY
Published March 2, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Ricky Pena's senior season appeared headed for a less than satisfying conclusion. His Green Devils had lost three straight and looked bad doing so.

For a second, Pena allowed into his head the thought that maybe, after playing so well all season, St. Petersburg was running out of gas and destined for district tournament heartbreak.

"The thought crossed my mind," said Pena, the Green Devils' leading scorer.

But just as swiftly, coach Chris Blackwell knocked the thought out of Pena and his teammates' heads. An embarrassing 73-42 loss to Lakewood, the third straight defeat, was a wakeup call.

"After the Lakewood game, we met together as a team, behind closed doors," Blackwell said. "I told them we needed to decide which direction we wanted to go in."

The team decided up. Since that the Green Devils have won seven straight.

After losing in the district title game and to Largo in the region quarterfinals, the Green Devils (21-7) have reversed their fortunes this season. The district title won by beating Gibbs meant getting Largo at home, where they avenged last year's regional loss.

"We wanted to do everything we didn't do last year," Pena said.

Tonight against No. 4 Fort Myers, the Green Devils can add another milestone: Winning would send it to its first region final since 1972.

The Green Wave (20-5) will present a formidable challenge for the Green Devils. It is a quick, good-shooting team that features one of the best big men in the state in 6-foot-8 center Robinson Louisme, a Tulane signee who is averaging 15.7 points and 11.2 rebounds this season.

St. Petersburg will try to neutralize him with its two-headed center, Thaddeus Vaughn and Jamon Sanders. Vaughn, a 6-7 junior, has been playing well lately, and Sanders is a hulking 6-6. Though he had to sit out a year and has played only a handful of games this season, his big body and leadership will come in handy.

"We've watched film on him," Vaughn said. "We just have to play real good defense and don't give up. And we have to get around him and not let him get the ball."

The Green Devils pressure defense will also have to thrive if it is to slow down Fort Myers, winners of 11 straight. The Green Wave is 0-4 when held to fewer than 60 points; St. Petersburg held Gibbs and Largo to an average of 42 in its past two games.

"When we had that closed-door meeting, we told them we had to get back to the basics, and that's playing St. Petersburg basketball," Blackwell said. "That's pressure defense and being patient on offense. We do those two things well, we can play with anybody."

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