MANATEE -- For one half of basketball, the State College of Florida men stayed with the defending national junior college champions.
Unfortunately, the host Manatees eventually succumbed Wednesday night, dropping an 88-61 contest to College of Central Florida (14-3), which came into the game ranked 20th nationally and third in the state.
What the struggling Manatees (1-14) learned is that they could be an awfully good team if they get a few more guys to play with the energy level of Deonte Hearns.
The 6-foot-6 freshman had a game-high 15 rebounds, despite going against the Patriots' huge front line, and led the Manatees with 22 points.
"I just wanted to play hard and let my energy feed off the team," Hearns said. "I tried to get others involved and work the middle when I could. The first half we played harder than them, and hard work will beat talent every time. The second half they played harder than us and with their talent it equals a loss. If we would've played hard the second half we would've won, but we ran out of gas."
Hearns pulled down 10 rebounds in the first half when he was nearly a one-man wrecking crew on the glass. Booker High product Blake Harper helped the Manatees stay withing striking distance with eight first-half points, including two from beyond the arc.
"Deonte Hearns is a road warrior. He is a competitor," said SCF head coach Elliott Washington, who took over the team last July. "When we come out and play hard and smart, we are in the ball game. Unfortunately, we have those mental lapses where we turn the ball over
and we still haven't shot the 3-ball well. It's been tough adjusting, but I am encouraged that we still have a competitive ball club.
"I feel we can have a team that can compete with Central Florida, but you have to have the right pieces. You need the players and guys who are highly motivated. We will get a chance to get those players. Right now, we are trying to mold guys who were here."
Hearns and Gabriel Dos Santos hit a couple of baskets for SCF to start the second half, but Central Florida started to hit from long range and control the boards with its superior height.
Patriots guard Rodell Wigginton, who led all scorers with 25 points, sparked a 22-9 run that enabled Central Florida to take a 58-40 lead and pull away from the Manatees.
"It's 36-31 at halftime and we played with some solid energy. Only being down by five the plan was to build off that energy, but in the second half that didn't happen," Washington said. "We looked tired and didn't stop them in transition. They are the defending national champions for a reason and have a lot of big, long Division I talent. For us to compete against those teams we have to match their effort and more."
Harper scored 11 points and was the only other SCF player in double figures. Dos Santos had nine, and LaQuon Kirce had eight points.
The Manatees were again without Obinna Oleka, the 6-7 University of Texas signee who has been suspended for violating team rules.
Nathaniel Johnson was second for SCF with six rebounds and scored four points, and Kirce dished out five assists.
SCF shot 21-for-66 from the field. Central Florida was 31 for 63, but the Patriots were 18-for-32 in the second half while the Manatees were 10-for-34.