Lakewood Ranch’s defense bent again as Deoni Cason darted to the rim and spotted Robert Tobey lingering near the basket less than three minutes into the fourth quarter. An easy pass and easy layup triggered an eruption in the bleachers to the right inside Braden River High School’s gymnasium. After trailing for most of the first half, the connection put Braden River ahead of the Mustangs for the first time since the second quarter.
Lakewood Ranch hasn’t faced many fourth-quarter deficits this season, but in a way the Mustangs are built to withstand the sort of explosions teams need to challenge them. Sam Hester, Lakewood Ranch’s leading scorer each of the last three seasons, didn’t score in the first half and the Mustangs survived. The guard waited until the final period for his moment.
“They just kept hitting big shots, but we knew it’s a rivalry game, there’s a lot of energy, they’re going to make big shots,” Hester said. “We had to make our big shots.”
The senior answered with a pair of free throws, then hit a short jumper on the next possession to put Lakewood Ranch ahead for good. His four-point solo burst sparked an eight-point run to rebuild the lead and eventually finish off the Pirates for a 66-57 win in a meeting of perhaps the two best teams in Manatee County.
Hester wound up leading the Mustangs (14-2, 7-0 Class 8A-District 11) with 16 points, including 10 during the fourth quarter, after failing to score during the first 16 minutes. Wing Evan Spiller added 13 and scored nine of his points during the first half. Point guard Devin Twenty, who finished with 10, scored all but one of his points during the second and third quarters.
“We have a whole bunch of people that can step up when they need to,” Hester said. “If they see some people that normally make shots aren’t then they can step up and start hitting shots. Evan had a really good first half. If he didn’t have that good first half we would’ve been down a lot more at halftime.”
Braden River (13-3, 4-2) opened with a flurry which nearly let them lead into halftime. Guard Deoni Cason, who led all scorers with 19, scored 11 points during the first three minutes with the help of three 3-pointers and the Pirates raced out to a 14-5 lead.
After digging an early hole on its way to a 28-point loss during the teams’ first meeting last month, the strong start let Braden River push Lakewood Ranch until the end.
“It’s a rivalry game,” Pirates head coach Jason Mickan said. “Braden River-Lakewood Ranch: You’re always going to get something physical. You’re always going to get a full game.”
The Pirates had to retool some of their offense on the fly Friday, centering around Cason and Curtis Cobb. Wing forward Jacob Garrett, Braden River’s No. 2 scorer, injured his foot leading up to the game and the Pirates played without him for the first time in a virtual must-win to remain in contention for the top spot in the Class 8A-11.
Cason’s shooting lifted Braden River early, and a double-double by Cobb with 14 points and 10 assists led the Pirates’ second half rally before they slipped two games back of their archrival in the district standings.
While Cason and Cobb scored or assisted on all but two of Braden River’s points during the fourth quarter, the Mustangs had the luxury to spread their offense. Hester’s mini run gave way to four straight points by guard Brock Sisson. Spiller scored his final four points during the last two minutes, and forwards Justin Muscara and Jack Kelley both made layups to give Lakewood Ranch six different scorers during the final period.
“You want to see guys make plays in clutch moments and we have a multitude of guys that make plays,” Mustangs head coach Jeremy Schiller said. “Having a senior team really helps that a lot.”