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BROOKSVILLE - For a few tense minutes Wednesday night, Central's worst nightmare appeared to be coming true. Already in the midst of a frustrating 2-15 season, the Bears saw a 17-point halftime lead against a county rival dissolve into a one-possession game with less than a minute left.
"If Nature Coast would have beat us," Central forward Tim Plumadore said, "it just would have been bad."
But Nature Coast didn't. Central played just enough defense and shot just enough free throws in the waning seconds to beat the Sharks 54-51 and grab its most meaningful win of the season.
Each of the Bears' five senior starters came up big in his own way. Down the stretch, Derek Jacobs, Bernardo DeJesus and Justin Lewis 7-for-8 from the free-throw line. Plumadore provided timely defense and rebounding. And forward Spencer Paulsen drained three 3-pointers and led all scorers with 21 points.
"It's been hard as heck for those seniors," Central coach John Sedlack said. "They've given their hearts to the program for four years."
All five players were on the court for the final 30 seconds. After DeJesus hit 1-of-2 free throws to put the Bears up 52-49 with 24.4 seconds remaining, there was a nerve-racking defensive possession that featured a Sharks airball and two blocked shots by Plumadore. Nature Coast forward Josh Ortiz, who scored 13 of his team-high 19 points in the second half, eventually scored a layup to cut the deficit to 52-51. But Lewis hit two free throws and Nature Coast did not have enough time to get off a decent shot.
"It just felt great," Paulsen said. "Going into districts with a couple of wins gives us a little momentum. Hopefully we'll get a little run going."
Central, which beat Hernando Christian Tuesday night, has won back-to-back games for the first time all season.
Nature Coast, which went two full quarters (middle of the first to the middle of the third) without scoring a field goal, was left to take stock of what went wrong.
Sharks guard Jon Woodbury missed the first half because of disciplinary issues, but coach Travis Priddy said his team's poor rebounding and defense was to blame for the 32-15 deficit at halftime.
Nature Coast's pressure defense helped bring it back into the game in the fourth quarter as the Sharks put together a 13-3 run, but it wasn't enough.