LAKEWOOD RANCH -- With three minutes until tipoff Thursday, everything in the Lakewood Ranch High School gymnasium came to a halt for Anthony Suarez. The 5-foot-10 wing, the Mustangs' only senior, stood at the entrance to the gym with a tunnel of teammates ready to greet him along the edge of the court.
As Suarez trotted onto the court, Ranch's public address announcer read a message from boys basketball head coach Jeremy Schiller. "Every team has a leading scorer," it said. "Not every team has an Anthony Suarez."
"Overall," Schiller said after Thursday's game, "tonight was about Anthony Suarez."
The Mustangs' senior night quickly turned into a blowout and a 74-46 victory against Bayshore in both teams' penultimate game of the regular season. Schiller decided to make Ranch's regular-season home finale a chance for the rest of the Lakewood Ranch student body to recognize the senior who went from a student-assistant as a freshman to a varsity captain this season.
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Suarez wasn't exactly sure what he expected when he tried out for the Mustangs (19-4) as a freshman. He
had always been a basketball fan, but said he felt like a "fish out of water" during tryouts.
"I never knew what the program would be," Suarez said. "I didn't know how intense it was going be, how hard it was going to be."
Schiller told him to stick around as a student-assistant. It would give Suarez a better chance to make the junior varsity team as a sophomore and eventually climb his way up to varsity.
When Ranch needed an extra body in practice, Suarez filled in. When the team was in the weight room, Suarez was right there with them.
He called the summer after his freshman season, when he was determined to become a bigger part of the program, the hardest of his life. Almost three years later, Schiller rewarded Suarez with his first start on senior night.
Once again, it was obvious Suarez was uncomfortable. He wasn't sure how to go through the pregame handshake routine or what the lead-up to a game was like as a starter. Even the PA announcer mistakenly listed Suarez as 6-foot-6 before making a correction.
Suarez sunk a 3-pointer during the first quarter and finished with four points in the rout. Fittingly, his bigger contributions against the Bruins (10-12) were on defense.
"He plays against the best team all the time," Schiller said. "I think we're one of the best teams in the state and he plays against them every day. He's used to it."
And Lakewood Ranch didn't waste any time putting away BHS. The Mustangs led 46-19 at halftime and finished with double-digit scoring performances from guards Damien Gordon and Sam Hester.
Gordon scored 12 and Hester led the way with 15 to go along with five rebounds, four assists and four steals.
Bayshore's Jaylen Pauley led all scorers with 17 and Thomas White added 11. The Bruins close the regular season against Manatee on Friday in Bradenton.
Ranch finishes its regular season Saturday in Sarasota against Riverview, the No. 1 team in Class 8A. Lakewood Ranch's best chance at an upset lies with its depth -- the Mustangs' nine-man rotation is a strength and the camaraderie which makes them great was on display through Suarez on Thursday.
"I tell a kid he's not going to start and he's probably one of our best players, and he says, 'OK,'" Schiller said. "It's just abnormal for high school basketball. I'm just really proud of their character."