By JAMAL THALJI
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 10, 2001
NEW PORT RICHEY -- Two teams passed like ships in the night Tuesday. One sailing toward the future, the other left wondering where all the water is coming from.
So it went as East Lake defeated host Ridgewood 57-54 in a thrilling and crucial Class 5A, District 9 boys contest. Following the pendulum-like swings of momentum, questionable calls and lead changes, it's hard to believe the injury-plagued Eagles (4-8, 2-2) are the ones four games below .500 yet looking at a bright district future. And that the talented and erratic Rams (9-6, 2-3) are three games above .500 yet nowhere near post-season form.
Minutes after his team's third consecutive win, East Lake coach Joe Bloznalis was looking ahead to Thursday's home contest against the Land O'Lakes juggernaut, still trying to fathom how the Gators could be even better than last season's district championship squad.
"I think we've been taking some teams by surprise," he said. "We've been injured all season long, and now we're starting to get some of our players back and I don't think other teams are quite ready for us.
"Don't tell anybody, now."
While in the other locker room, Ridgewood coach Gary Anders was left exasperated and befuddled by his team's maddening play. How does the home team go from a 10-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter to needing a desperation three-pointer with 5.2 seconds left just to tie it?
"We looked like corpses walking around out there," he said. "If you just play hard all the time you can afford to make mistakes. But we didn't play hard.
"There comes a time when this team, when someone, is going to have to take the bull by the horns and start making things happen. But we're not doing that. We're just letting things happen."
The Rams let the lead slip away early and trailed 14-10 in the first quarter. They finally chased down the Eagles in the waning minutes of the second half with an 8-2 run to take a 29-28 halftime lead.
After halftime, Ridgewood took control as Eric Sierra dropped five on East Lake and Donny Lotz overcame his first-half shooting woes to score eight.
But the Eagles, buoyed by the return of Dalen Cuff and sharp-shooter Chris Thomas, erased the Rams' 10-point advantage. Thomas nailed three from three-point range, Lotz fouled out, and the Rams were outscored 18-7.
All of Ridgewood's offense came from the line, sinking 7 of 10 free throws as the Rams could not manage a single field goal in the fourth quarter.
The Rams' last hopes, two desperate three-point tries, clanked off the rim in the game's final seconds.
"We didn't score a basket in the fourth?" Anders said. "Oh, that's beautiful."