BRADENTON -- Playing before the largest crowd at Hal Chasey Gymnasium in more than a decade, the State College of Florida men's basketball team got its redemption.
Using their frenzied style of basketball, the Manatees wore down visiting St. Petersburg College and earned a trip to the state tournament with a 95-73 victory Monday night.
The players thought they had won a berth in the state tournament last week with a victory over Hillsborough Community College that would have given them the Suncoast Conference crown. But the National Junior College Athletic Association ruled they had to forfeit a conference game for using an ineligible player, and it cost the Manatees the league title and automatic berth.
SCF had a second chance to go as conference tournament runner-up and didn't let the chance get away in defeating St. Petersburg for the third time in three meetings this season.
Led by guard Michael Sanchez and Obinna Oleka, who has been a beast for the Manatees over the last few weeks of the season, SCF had five players hit double figures and dominated the boards outrebounding the Titans 56-40 with 25 offensive rebounds.
Sanchez, the Manatees 5-7 sparkplug, contributed 16 points, dished out 10 assists, including some that brought the crowd to its feet and came up with four steals. The 6-foot-7 Oleka took game scoring honors with 22 points, but more importantly pulled down 13 rebounds and had four blocks and nearly brought the gym down with an acrobatic dunk.
"It motivated us a lot that we couldn't go to states (because of the forfeit). We were supposed to be conference champions. We didn't get it so we had to play harder," Sanchez said. "We just had to step up and keep playing like we can and go to where we are supposed to go. It took Obinna a long time, but he finally is doing his thing and now we have a chance of winning the state. I am very proud of this team."
The game was tied at 20 with 11:25 left in the first half when Isaiah Williams and Savad Garner hit back to back treys and SCF took the lead for good. The Manatees stretched its lead to 48-30, but St. Petersburg finished the first half with seven unanswered points to stay within the striking distance.
SCF opened the second half with eight straight points to lead 56-37 and stretched the margin to 21 points (68-47) with 14:04 left in the game.
The Titans made a run and cut their deficit to 73-63 with 9:53 remaining. But the
Manatees came back with an 8-1 run to lead 81-64 with 6:16 left and St. Petersburg couldn't get any closer.
"When we play hard and create turnovers and get out on transition we are really good," SCF head coach Brock Erickson said. "We are really unselfish and those are the things we preached all year. It was absolutely extra motivation that we had to forfeit that game. It has taken Oleka a long time to understand how to play at this level, but he is playing with confidence and trusts his teammates now. I can't say enough about Sanchez. He is one of the toughest kids I've ever coached."
Garner had 20 points and 10 rebounds. Other double-figure scorers for SCF were Williams with 19 points and nine rebounds and Denzel Myers with 12 points and nine boards.
St. Petersburg was led by Southeast High and former Bradenton Herald Player of The Year Reggie Smalls, who had 20 points (7-19 shooting) with two assists and two steals.
"It is good that I saw a lot of family and friends, but we came up short. I tried my best to help us get the win," Smalls said. "It was a tough season, probably one of the toughest I've ever had as an individual and as a team. There were a lot of ups downs and we ended up with eight players. In the second half I tried to take it to the hole and stay aggressive."
SCF finished the game connecting on 37 of 78 field goal attempts (5-18 on treys). St. Petersburg (13-19) struggled with its shooting (24-71) and was 4-15 on treys. The Titans had gone to the state five seasons in a row.
SCF will play the College of Central Florida (27-3) in a first round game of the state tournament at 1 p.m. on March 6 at Chipola College in Mariana.
SCF completes its regular season on the court at 25-7, though the forfeits would give it a 7-25 record. The Manatees last went to the state tournament in 2008.