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By GREG AUMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001
BROOKSVILLE -- If the circumstances seem familiar, it's only because they are.
Pasco is the top seed, fresh off a first-round bye. Central is the lowest seed left in the tournament, thanks to an opening-round upset. The only difference is that it was Feb. 18 last year, and the neutral site was Springstead as Central's 50-46 overtime upset sent the Bears to the playoffs and the Pirates packing.
Central coach John Sedlack remembers. He's fairly sure Pasco will, too.
"You've got to feel they're going to be gunning for us after last year," Sedlack said of tonight's 6 p.m. district semifinal at Hernando's Imhoff Gymnasium. "Here we are, the same scenario."
The five returning players from last year's Central team -- seniors Donnie Pelham, Sean Tuzza and David Egan, junior Josh Scott and sophomore Josh Smith -- were at the heart of a well-earned celebration in the Bears' locker room after Wednesday's 36-26 upset of Springstead.
"It's been a rough, rough year," said Sedlack, whose team likely faces the first back-to-back losing seasons in school history. "You've got guys like Donnie and Egan who have been in the program for four years. Tuzza got cut as a freshman and came back and gave it his all.
"Tuzza gives a lot for a kid with not much athletic ability. He's a battler," Sedlack said. "I told him if I had 10 high school All-Americas, I'd find a spot for him on my team. He's got that kind of heart. Those seniors played for their basketball lives tonight, and they got it done."
Egan was struggling with turnovers midway through the fourth quarter Wednesday when Sedlack pulled his point guard aside and told him to relax. Egan fed a perfect bounce pass to junior Willie Winslett for an assist on the next play, and with 15 seconds left, the former quarterback lobbed a long outlet in stride to Scott for a three-point play.
Tuzza gave Central (12-15) the lead for good with two free throws, and Pelham's defensive effort -- holding Springstead's Steve Ferguson to six points -- was paramount in the Bears' win. Before the game, Sedlack reminded his seniors to make the most of perhaps the last great basketball opportunity they'll have.
"I said to them, "Some of you may never play organized sports again. This is your time to shine. This is where you've really got to reach down,' " Sedlack said. "These kids have responded well all year."
Central split two meetings with Pasco this season, winning 60-54 in December and losing 38-37 in overtime in January. One ominous common factor in both games was missed free throws. The Bears hit 13 of 29 shots in the first game and missed 14 more in the second.
Tonight's second semifinal pits another two teams who split their regular-season series. Second-seeded Hernando (13-15) and third-seeded Tarpon Springs (12-8) had identical 9-3 district records. Leopards coach Charlie Williams understands that tonight's game is the final tie-breaker.
Tarpon, which lost two starters to academic problems and had a third quit the team last month, had lost seven of nine games before rallying to hold off 3-23 Hudson on Wednesday night. Williams said Tarpon isn't the same team that opened district play with eight consecutive victories, but they represent a challenge his squad must overcome.
"We've got to handle their press," said Williams, whose club faced a porous Zephyrhills defense Wednesday that gave up 10 three-pointers in a 90-47 Hernando win. "If we handle the press like we did here, we can make it a game. He's got some athletes, and they played pretty well tonight."
Juniors Jerrell Graham and Jeremy Balogh led the Leopards with 19 points Wednesday. Despite a 40-point lead, Balogh was in the game late in the fourth quarter, hitting one of three Hernando three-pointers in the final two minutes.
"I think when you get up like that, you don't try to rub it in, because I'll be down one day," Williams said, who played reserves for most of the second half. "I don't tell them to stop playing. I have guys that don't play a whole lot, and that's their time. We're not going to press or trap or anything like that, but I tell them to play."
If Williams' biggest problem tonight is deciding who to play at the end of another lopsided game, he won't be too upset. He called Wednesday's offensive outburst "the best team effort we had all year."
Both of tonight's winners advance to the state playoffs and meet in Saturday's 7:30 p.m. championship, with that game's winner playing host to a first-round regional quarterfinal and the loser starting the post-season on the road.