TAMPA State College of Florida men’s basketball coach Joe Whelton told his players a win at the right time can cure a season full of ills.
The Manatees took their coach’s words to heart and rolled to an 81-56 victory over host Hillsborough Community College on Saturday in the Suncoast Conference tournament opener.
The victory sends SCF (7-18) to Polk State College on Monday with the winner qualifying for the state tournament that begins March 7 at Chipola College,
The Manatees were on fire from long range and dominated the glass, outrebounding Hillsborough 41-22 while holding a 21-7 advantage on the offensive boards.
Palmetto High product Reggie Baity was 5-of-7 from beyond the arc, and Ryan Steed canned 5 of 8 3-point attempts as they blistered the nets from long range. Baity finished with 17 points, and Steed had 15.
“I told the guys before the game one win can make a lot of wrongs right,” Whelton said. “You can forget what happened all season and now we are just one game away from the state tournament and have something to play for. The ball was moving, and Reggie and Ryan got some good looks at the basket. Reggie hasn’t been shooting well, and they were leaving him open, and he was able to find his rhythm.”
SCF lost two of three to Hillsborough during the season, including a 67-63 defeat to the Hawks (9-19) on Wednesday night on the same floor. But this time they were taking no chances and looked focused, canning 32 of 70 shots while dominating the boards. They hit 6 of 9 free throws and were 11-of-22 from 3-point territory.
Baity, a 5-foot-10 sophomore guard, was determined not to see his career end on a sour note and get out of a shooting slump that plagued him the past few games.
“The main thing for me was to stay focused. I think that helped my shooting a lot,” Baity said. “Today was big for the sophomores, and I knew we could win if we concentrated on what we needed to do. Last night (Friday) after practice, I stayed late at the gym to get my shot back on and it must’ve helped. The difference today compared to Wednesday was our concentration. And I wanted to keep playing.”
The Manatees had a balanced attack. Five players scored double figures, and point guard Denzel Myers contributed nine points.
SCF’s big man, 6-8 Odi Onyekachukwu, had a game-high 18 points and 13 rebounds, and guard Elias Gutierrez from Sarasota High had a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Giannis Stavriandis contributed 10 points.
Hillsborough CC shot 20-for-51 for the game and was 6-for-12 on 3-point attempts. The Hawks struggled in the first half. shooting 9-for-26, and trailed 37-23 at the break.
Unlike Wednesday, the Manatees didn’t blow a lead , eventually taking a 72-46 lead with 5:01 left in the game for their biggest margin.
Baity dropped in three triples in the first 10 minutes of the second half without a miss, then Steed knocked down two straight 3-pointers. Meanwhile, Onyekachukwu and Myers hurt Hillsborough inside.
“Everybody was really relaxed and confident, and they played as a team,” Whelton said. “Elias and Odi got us going on the boards, and the others followed. I am real happy for the guys because it has been a long, sometimes frustrating, season.”
The Manatees are 1-2 against Polk State College (17-13), but won the last time they played.