With the Class 8A-Region 3 final between Lakewood Ranch and Tarpon Springs East Lake knotted up at 47 and just under three minutes left, the Mustangs quietly had a talk among themselves as the home crowd roared during a timeout.
“They just said they weren’t going to lose the game,” Lakewood Ranch head coach Jeremy Schiller said.
His Mustangs talked the talk, then walked the walk over the final minutes. Lakewood Ranch scored the final 10 points of the game and punched its ticket to the state final four for the second time in three seasons with a 57-47 victory over the Eagles before a standing-room only crowd Friday at Lakewood Ranch High School.
Both teams made a living from beyond the arc early. Lakewood Ranch got threes from Keon Buckley and Christian Perez, but East Lake answered with threes of their own. Dean Gabrelick hit from downtown on three straight possessions, which was aided by the fact that the Eagles were beating the Mustangs by a large margin on the offensive boards.
“There’s a lot of things we talk about going into a game like this, but until you’ve been in the moment it’s hard to get these kids to adjust to the things we ask,” Schiller said. “I thought we did a good job of attacking things. East Lake is really good and they played out of their minds.”
Christian Shaneyfelt took the game into his own hands in the second quarter. The Lakewood Ranch sharpshooter opened the second quarter with back-to-back buckets and repeated that performance later in the quarter.
Shaneyfelt saved his best shot for last. On the final possession of the first half he took a pass on the wing and launched a long three-pointer that found nothing but the bottom of the net at the buzzer. He scored 14 of his game-high 23 points in the second quarter.
“I just had to stay in the middle and work with what they gave me,” Shaneyfelt said. “I was just feeling it and letting it fly.”
East Lake, which didn’t hit a field goal over a seven-minute span in the second and third quarters, hit a barrage of threes and went back in front in the middle of the third quarter. Dionte Branch’s thunderous alley-oop at the buzzer put the Eagles up 38-35 at the end of the third.
Gabrelick hit three more three-pointers to force the 47-47 tie. After the fateful timeout, Shaneyfelt hit two more buckets, then the Mustangs went 6-for-6 from the free throw line in the closing minutes to ice the game and set off a wild frenzy that saw the Lakewood Ranch student section storm the floor in celebration.
“We just kept playing defense and we kept rebounding,” Shaneyfelt said. “I didn’t lose any faith in them. I knew we would pull out the win.”
“We outwork every team we play and we were able to pull this out in the end because of our work ethic,” Buckley added.
Gabrelick led East Lake with 18 points, but it was the Lakewood Ranch defense that held the Eagles off in the waning moments.
“They made a lot threes and it was a battle of styles, but in the end our will is what separated us,” Schiller said. “We all want to be the greatest coach ever, but at the end of the day it’s players that love each other.”
The win was made even more special since Lakewood Ranch entered the game with a bit of a heavy heart. Former Mustang Jack Kelly was severely injured in a hit-and-run accident earlier this week and is recovering in a local hospital.
“I challenged myself to be as strong as I could for all of my guys, but it’s difficult because as exciting as this moment is, it’s really been a challenging two days,” Schiller said. “We’ve got a Mustang down right now. The good news is that when he wakes up and hears this he’s going to be pretty happy. We’re all really pulling for him.”
Lakewood Ranch (23-6) will face Orange Park Fleming Island (22-2) in a Class 8A state semifinal at 2 p.m. Friday at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.