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By FRANK PASTOR
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001
LAKELAND -- Plant didn't just put itself in a hole. The Panthers dug a grave.
Plant fell behind by 12 points in the first four minutes and never recovered in a 55-39 loss to Belleview in the Class 5A semifinals Wednesday at The Lakeland Center.
Steve Berg scored a game-high 16 points, including three of his team's seven three-pointers, and Belleview held Plant to 27 percent shooting from the field as the Diamondback Rattlers advanced to the state championship game for the first time in school history.
Belleview (29-5) will play St. Thomas Aquinas (28-3) at 7:30 p.m. on Friday after the Raiders defeated Oak Ridge 67-58 in the other semifinal.
Plant (27-5), which took 38 years to return to the final four, needed less than four minutes to play its way out of the tournament.
While Michael Williams missed back-to-back shots from the baseline, Tyler Azzarelli misfired on a three-point attempt from the top of the key and Adam Bishop mishandled an Azzarelli pass, Belleview's John Arnold scored eight points, including a three-point shot and a conventional three-point play, to help the Rattlers to a 12-0 lead 3:20 into the game.
Azzarelli put Plant on the scoreboard with a pair of free throws 13 seconds later, but Jonathan Gibbons and Berg added three-pointers later in the quarter to give Belleview an 18-7 lead it did not relinquish.
Belleview coach Michael Bowe said his "gym rats," were unfazed by their first appearance in the tournament.
"If you ever come out to Belleview and you see the lights on at midnight, these guys are in there playing," he said.
Plant coach Mike Phillips attributed his team's slow start to poor shooting, not jitters.
"I don't believe any of these guys were nervous," he said.
"The shots just did not fall."
Plant outscored Belleview 8-3 in the second quarter to pull within 21-15 as the Panthers held the Rattlers scoreless for more than six minutes. But a three-pointer by Gibbons ended the drought.
Though his team trailed, Azzarelli said he felt confident going into the locker room.
"I felt we played as bad as we could have played and they hit the majority of their shots and we were only down six points," he said.
Azzarelli felt even better after a Bishop layup cut Plant's deficit to four points 30 seconds into the third quarter. But Belleview answered with an 11-2 run and went ahead 32-19 on an Arnold layup with 3:11 to play in the quarter.
Belleview extended its lead to 18 on a Naathan Lake jumper three minutes into the fourth quarter, but Plant wasn't finished.
Azzarelli, who has asthma and struggles to breathe during games, scored nine points during the next 2:35 to narrow the gap to 45-37. But Belleview closed with a 10-2 run to put the game away.
The Rattlers made 22 of 39 shots from the field, including 7 of 13 from three-point range. The Panthers made just 13 of 48 attempts, including 2 of 14 from three-point territory.
Though the loss ended Plant's state championship hopes, Phillips hinted that the Panthers will be back to make another run.
"Two of these guys will be back here next season," he said, pointing to Williams and Azzarelli.
He pounded a table in The Lakeland Center press room.