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LAND O'LAKES -- Mitchell coach Tom Jessee looks at the Land O'Lakes gym and sees the future.
Three Sunshine Athletic Conference championships. Two district championships. A record of 55-7 the past two seasons. During that stretch, Gators coach Dave Puhalski's program has been Pasco County's preeminent team.
Thursday night, the Mustangs climbed a little closer to that goal, handing the rebuilding Gators a painful 55-46 conference and district defeat at home.
Mitchell did it with defense and free-throw shooting. After Land O'Lakes took a 13-4 lead in the first quarter, Mitchell closed the gap and suddenly it was a two-possession game.
Then, in the second half, the wheels came off the Gators' offense.
Land O'Lakes was both foul- and turnover-prone in an ugly second-half effort, and Mitchell's free-throw shooting proved to be the difference.
The Mustangs sank 31 of 44 free throws in the game, hitting 17 of 24 in the fourth alone.
"It's a big win for us," Jesse said. "Dave's program speaks for itself. He's built and established a program over the years that speaks for itself, and I thought it was a step in the right direction of the building of our program.
"Like Dave said, we're climbing the mountain. We've made some improvement, but we're not where we want to be yet. We'd like to mirror them and where they've been."
Mitchell improved to 8-3 with the win, going 3-1 in Class 4A, District 8 and 6-1 in the SAC. Land O'Lakes fell to 4-6 on the season, 2-3 in 4A-8 and 3-4 in the SAC.
Unfortunately for Puhalski, his team played like one that graduated eight seniors.
"Offensively, we made some really bad decisions," he said. "We got in a hurry on offense and threw the ball away and that led to some of their baskets and that led to some frustration for us. We just made bad decisions."
Land O'Lakes saw a five-point lead in the third quarter turn into a four-point deficit at the start of the fourth. Mitchell didn't run away with the lead, but the Mustangs' defense and the Gators' inept offense made a seven-point lead seem insurmountable with 4 minutes left.
Mitchell hit just one field goal in the fourth quarter. Jeremy Hopper went 7-for-9 from the line in the final quarter, and Danny Sheehan went 6-for-8 and Jason Weaver 3-for-4 in the last 27 seconds. Land O'Lakes, on the other hand, was just 10 of 22 from the line.
Weaver led the Mustangs with 21 points and 7 rebounds. Sheehan had 13 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists. Kyle Cregan had 9 points and 3 steals and Hopper scored 12.
Drew Weatherford led the Gators with 17 points. J.W. Bryant scored 11, sinking three 3-pointers, but never scored in the second half. Logan Payne had 10 and A.J. Brown had seven, but he went 1-for-7 from the line.
"Offensively, we just went into a funk," Puhalski said. "We didn't make good decisions ... getting the ball to the open guy was the problem, and when they got it, they didn't make it."