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Coach's tirade inspires Land O'Lakes seniors


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001

EAST LAKE -- The three-point line may as well have been back by the Pasco County line. The backdoor passes went AWOL. The easy layups were on the front of a milk carton. The RVB scoring machine -- a k a Ryan Van Blarcom -- threw a rod.

Defense kept them in it -- but just barely. The juggernaut formerly known as the Land O'Lakes Gators teetered Thursday on the brink of a rare defeat.

Coach Dave Puhalski, his face a fiery crimson, his voice rising with each timeout, tried to scream some sense into his befuddled squad at the start of the fourth quarter, down four points to East Lake on the road in Pinellas County.

"What are we?" Puhalski demanded to know. "Sophomores or seniors?"

Seniors, coach. But just barely. And it took overtime to prove it as Land O'Lakes held off East Lake 56-52 to stay undefeated and atop the Class 5A, District 9 standings.

Puhalski summed up the victory: "Brian bailed our (butts) out."

As in Brian Baisley, the other Baisley brother, who stole the ball under the basket with 10 seconds left in overtime, was fouled, and calmly hit two free throws to give the Gators a wafer-thin 54-50 advantage.

Land O'Lakes allowed East Lake's Chris Thomas to make an easy basket on the other end. Then with four seconds left, Jeff Baisley heaved a half-court pass to David Starkey, who leaped over Jimmy McCreeny to grab it and hit an insurance layup as time expired.

The Gators stormed the court, jumping up and down, as Puhalski's team avenged last season's heartbreaking 60-59 Eagle win, a hotly-contested game that saw Land O'Lakes fall on a miracle three-pointer by Thomas. That game was played between two district contenders in front of a packed gym and needed nine black-clad deputies to keep the peace. There were just three deputies this time, the crowd much thinner and calmer, and the young, injury-plagued Eagles (4-9, 2-3) had lost a step compared to the Gators (16-2, 6-0). As East Lake coach Joe Bloznalis explained, his team of juniors made one mistake too many against senior-laden Land O'Lakes.

"Their experience showed and our inexperience showed," he said.

Brian and Jeff Baisley led the Gators with 16 points apiece, Starkey chipped in nine and Van Blarcom had just five after exploding for a career-high 33 the night before. Dalen Cuff led the Eagles with 18.

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