SEBRING - Bragging rights were on the line Thursday night in Blue Streaks Gym, but Sebring squashed any hopes of a competitive game in the early minutes, as the Blue Streaks beat longtime nemesis Avon Park 65-51 to take the season series 2-1.
"We met the challenge tonight," said Sebring coach Princeton Harris. "I've been challenging the guys in practice and they responded. Our energy was great and we played very well."
The Class 5A Streaks improved to 15-4 with the non-district win, while Class 4A Avon Park dropped to 15-7.
Spurred by Gary Demarest and Luke Ancrum, Sebring controlled the defensive glass for most of the first quarter. With the Streaks vacuuming up rebounds, Terrell Williams and Quantrae Rouse were free to fire from long range, and the pair combined for four 3-pointers, three in the first half alone.
Limiting the Red Devils to just one shot on each possession stymied Avon Park's offense, and the Streaks bolted out to a 21-12 lead. Ancrum finished with a team-high 11 rebounds while Demarest snagged five.
In the second period, Avon Park put together a mini-run thanks to back-to-back driving layups from Recarus Burley.
But Sebring's Connor Cook was lightning quick on the in-bounds pass, streaking back downcourt before the Devils had time to reset their defense to push Sebring to a 36-25 halftime advantage.
Cook finished with a game-high 15 points to go along with four rebounds, three assists, and three steals.
"Cook really played well, probably the best I've seen all season," said Avon Park Marty O'Hora. "He got the better of us tonight."
Cook's maturation didn't go unnoticed by his coach.
"It's hard to control a kid who has a love and passion for the game," Harris said. "I love that about him. But he knows what I want, and if he gives me what I want, I'll let him go a little bit and do what he wants."
Both teams had a lull in the third quarter. Each side scored 10 points, but a 3-pointer from Demrest sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Burley tried to quiet the roar with a layup and the foul, but a dazzling ball fake from Sebring's Keizhan Hester that led to a score just before the period ended made it 46-35 in the Streaks favor.
Avon Park's Alfred Brown finally found his scoring touch in the fourth quarter. Brown assisted on scores to teammates Tyrone Perry and John Mason, then buried a 3-pointer to cut Sebring's lead down to 47-42 with more than five minutes left to play in the game.
But that was as close as the Devils got.
"There was a moment where they matched us in intensity," Harris said. "But we've been working hard in practice - just improving our defense and putting up a lot of shots. Since that practice, they've just responded really well."
Feeling the game slipping away, Avon Park started firing up quick 3-pointers, two of which drew nothing but air.
Cook added his lone 3-point shot soon after to push Sebring's lead to 56-44 with just over two minutes left in the final quarter, and the Streaks were able to ice the game at the free throw line.
"We played hard, but it's easy to get caught up in the moment," O'Hora said. "And in that situation, the mentally tougher team will win every time. We got away from the game plan down the stretch, fired up too many quick threes, and didn't go inside enough."
Brown led the Devils in scoring, netting nine points. Gus Owens contributed eight points, and Daemon Braswell and Perry each scored six.
Sebring plays again today, hosting Class 6A Lake Region at Blue Streaks Gym. Tip-off is scheduled for 2 p.m. for junior varsity and 3:30 for varsity.
The Streaks open the Class 5A-District 11 tournament at home, hosting Hardee on Tuesday at 7 p.m. Meanwhile, Avon Park will play the winner of Monday's Lake Placid and McKeel Academy game, also on Tuesday, in Frostproof at 7 in the Class 4A-District 9 tournament. The Devils are trying to repeat as district champions.