SEMINOLE — In its two regular-season games against St. Petersburg, Countryside decisively won the first quarter and rode out that advantage to a pair of victories.
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Green Devils coach Chris Blackwell was determined not to let that happen again.
Playing for the Class 8A, District 10 championship Friday night at Seminole High, St. Petersburg came out flying from the opening tip. Crashing the boards, pushing the tempo offensively and defensively, the top-seeded Cougars were on their heels and struggling to find their rhythm. Scoring the game's first eight points, the third-seeded Green Devils had several heroes in their wire-to-wire 73-56 title triumph.
St. Petersburg will host Plant City on Thursday in the 8A region quarterfinals.
"We felt if we could get up on them, make them play the style of game we wanted, we could be successful," Blackwell said.
From disruptive defense by Serrell Smith to the rebounding and early offense of A.J. Ford (10 of his 15 points in the first half), St. Petersburg (15-10) sprinted to a quick advantage and kept Countryside from getting good looks from behind the 3-point arc. Seven points from Smith in the second quarter helped the Devils extend a four-point first-quarter edge to nine (32-23) at the break.
"We wanted a fast-paced game, get as many rebounds and points as we can," said Smith, who finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds. "We started moving the ball a lot more, knocking down shots. … It went real good."
"Coach (Blackwell) said crash the boards on them and that's what we did," Ford said as St. Petersburg ended up with a 52-31 rebounding advantage.
The Green Devils also did a good job negating 6-foot-9 center Tyler Witz in the paint, holding him to seven points on 2-of-12 shooting though he contributed 15 boards.
And in the second half, it became Darius Banks' game.
After working in the opening 16 minutes as a facilitator, Banks stuck a pair of dagger-like 3s to squash a Countryside run, then scored St. Petersburg's last eight points to leave his indelible stamp on the victory.
"We cut it to four," said Cougars coach Jeff Powers of a 12-7 run powered by 10 from Nathan Tettenborn (game-high 24 points with six 3s) that got Countryside within 39-35. "Then we didn't sprint back (on defense) and Banks hit a 3 from the corner, (James Lee, who had 10 points) hit another 3, the lead went back to 10 and we were gassed. You could tell."
"I think Darius came out to make a statement," said Blackwell of his senior's 22-point, six-rebound, six-assist evening. When you have players like A.J. and Serrell that can actually finish, he can kind of say, 'Now it's time to take over.' Let it be known, this is Darius' team."
"The one thing I had to keep telling the kids was that we haven't lost two games in a row this year," Powers said. "We've got to get into that mind-set going into Tampa Bay Tech (19-7 Countryside's region matchup on Thursday). We'll take (Saturday) off, rest up and get ready to practice on Monday."
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