It surely wasn’t the start they were looking for, but the ending suited Ponte Vedra’s varsity basketball team just fine in last Friday night’s 60-52 victory over Palatka. The win earned the Sharks their 3rd district championship in five years and improved their overall record to 17-10.
The victory also earned the Sharks home court advantage when they resume FHSAA tourney action tonight (Thurs, Feb. 11) when they host Gainesville Eastside at 7:00 p.m.
After an easy 80-43 victory over Menendez in the first round of the district tourney, the Sharks were expecting a much tougher game in their rubber game against Palatka. And a tough game it was!
The two district rivals had split their earlier games played during the regular season, with both teams holding serve on their home court.
With many of the late arriving crowd still waiting in long lines that formed outside the Ponte Vedra gymnasium, Palatka quickly jumped out to an early 9-0 lead, much to the delight of the large following of Panther rooters who made the more than one hour jaunt from Putnam County.
It was not until nearly five minutes had elapsed in the opening quarter before Ponte Vedra was able to score, but a 9-4 Ponte Vedra run closed the gap to a more manageable five point deficit at the break, with Palatka on top 14-9.
After being held scoreless in the first quarter, JD Pirris came alive in the second stanza by slashing through the tenacious Panther defense to score six of Ponte Vedra’s 12 points as the Sharks closed to within three of Palatka at the halftime intermission.
The Sharks were trailing 33-30 with 3:47 remaining in the third quarter before the tide turned into Ponte Vedra’s favor. A Palatka player was called for a technical foul, and Pirris made them pay as he canned both of the free throws. Pirris then followed up with another of his patented driving layups to give the Sharks their first lead of the night, 34-33 with 3:15 left in the third.
Senior Matt Johnson then netted back-to-back 3 pointers to extend the lead to 42-36 to help steer the Sharks to a 44-38 lead heading into the final quarter. Pirris and Johnson combined to score 16 of the Sharks third period points. The 23 points scored in the quarter by PVHS were more then they had tallied in the entire first half of action.
Johnson continued his stellar play into the final period by scoring the Sharks first six points, but Palatka would not go away. The Sharks would build their lead to 10 and seemingly had the game sewed up with but 2:15 left in the contest.
However, when Palatka’s pressing defense denied Pirris, Johnson and junior Eston Hensley from receiving the ball, three Ponte Vedra turnover had trimmed the Shark lead down to five points with 1:13 remaining. With the Sharks attempting to run out the clock, much to the total surprise of many in the packed Ponte Vedra gymnasium, one of the Shark players unloaded an ill-advised three point attempt. Chris Tomacewski bailed his teammate out by coming up with a clutch offensive rebound and Palatka was forced to foul, sending JD Pirris to the line.
Pirris, who was a 71 per cent free throw shooter as a sophomore, had a dismal first half of the season at the stripe, including a woeful 3-11 at the line in a December game against St. Augustine. Those days are now well in the distant past as JD, since the start of the New Year, has made better than 80% of his free throws. Pirris salted the game away by hitting 4 clutch free throws, while Hensely took a perfect feed from Johnson and scored in the final moments as the Sharks advance to the regionals with their 60-52 victory.
Johnson (17 points, eight rebounds and five assists), and Pirris (21 points, nine rebounds and five assists) had monster nights for the victors, while 6’3” junior forward Eston Hensley (10 points, five rebounds, three assists and no turnovers) also had a solid performance. Coach Beech however, will need better play from his remaining players in the rotation if the Sharks are to make some noise in the upcoming regionals.
Mike Nicandri could have made the night much easier for Beech and the Sharks but he has had to sit out the last couple of games due to concussion issues. Much to the surprise of many of the Palatka followers, who brought three bus load of students to Ponte Vedra for the game, they did not see 6’7” Shark sophomore Jack Johnson play in the contest.
On January 8, in the Shark 76-65 victory over Palatka, Johnson came off the bench to set a school record with 8 blocks, while adding an impressive seven rebounds and six points to his stat line.
Gainesville Eastside, losers in their district final to Alachua Santa Fe 66-51, will be the Shark’s opponent tonight with a scheduled tip off at 7 p.m. With another large crowd expected, local followers are urged to arrive early to avert a repeat of last Friday when a number of fans missed the early moments of action while waiting in the long lines to purchase tickets.
A win against Eastside will also assure the Sharks of hosting a regional semi-final on Tues., Feb. 16, against the winner of the regional game between Alachua Santa Fe and Palatka.