SEBRING - With less than five seconds left to play in regulation, Connor Cook could finally relax. The Sebring sophomore had just finished icing the Class 5A-District 11 championship game from the free throw line. And after fending off a ferocious Lemon Bay rally, he and the rest of the Blue Streaks were finally able to celebrate Friday's 69-62 win over the Manta Rays.
"The guys were really a little nervous before the game started," said Sebring coach Princeton Harris. "After coming out a little scared, and getting down by 10, we came back to take the lead and played really well down the stretch. I'm proud of the way the way they battled."
Capturing its first district championship since 2009, Sebring (17-6) will host 5A-District 12 runner-up Cape Coral (15-12) in the state regional quarterfinals Thursday at 7 p.m.
Despite beating Lemon Bay (9-16) handily in both regular season meetings, Sebring fell into an early 15-5 hole Friday night. The Streaks seemed shell-shocked. And as the Rays fans started to fill the gym with cheers, Harris called on Rolando Powery to re-energize his team.
Powery came in and immediately made his presence known on the offensive glass, vacuuming up Sebring's misses and putting them back for easy layups. Powery's insertion into the lineup re-energized Sebring, and the Streaks clawed their way to within one point of Lemon Bay with seven minutes left to play in the opening half.
"Powery just sparked us," Harris said. "He really responded to being put into that situation. He did a heck of a job."
Playing off of Sebring's other forward, Luke Ancrum, the Streaks two big men gobbled up rebounds on both ends of the floor, often limiting the Rays to just one offensive possession. Outside of a few broken plays, Lemon Bay's offense was stymied, and Sebring was able to take a 31-30 lead into halftime.
Lemon Bay rebounded in the second half, opening the third quarter on a 7-2 run. Ryan Straub swished a jumper and Joe Garza made a driving layup to put the Rays up 37-33 only minutes into the period.
But Sebring's Terrell Williams nailed a 3-pointer and made a driving layup to help the Streaks retake the lead.
Powery and Ancrum continued to terrorize the Rays offense, swatting a litany of shots into the bleachers, alongside powering the Streaks offense.
Behind the duo's prowess in the paint, Sebring bolted out to a 48-41 lead at the end of the third quarter.
Senior Gary Demarest gave the Blue Streaks their biggest lead of the night, 52-41, early in the fourth quarter with a driving layup.
Garza stopped the bleeding for Lemon Bay with a driving layup, and Straub netted two straight baskets to pull the Rays to within two.
But back-to-back circus shots from Cook gave the Streaks some breathing room, and the Rays were forced to start fouling.
Despite Cook nailing two free throws to put Sebring up 64-53, Lemon Bay's Montrel Jackson banked-in a deep three to keep the Rays alive. Cook missed his next two, and Jackson again swished a long three to cut it to 64-56 with 40 seconds left in the game. Sending Cook to the line once more, he missed his freebies, but snagged the rebound and spun baseline for a spectacular fade-away basket. But Jackson wasn't done. He buried one more three to cut it to 66-62. Cook made one more free throw and Lemon Bay bungled its next possession, and the Streaks held on for the win.
Cook finished with a game-high 21 points along with four assists. Powery notched a monster double-double of 17 points and 17 rebounds, while swatting seven shots.
Ancrum tallied 10 rebounds and eight points. Jackson paced Lemon Bay in scoring with 18 points. Garza added 16 and Straub netted 12.
"We really showed some resolve," Harris said. "I was really impressed with how we handled the adversity."