’Canes make plays down the stretch to top Lecanto 43-33

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C.J. Risak

LECANTO — Poor shooting, foul trouble, turnovers — sounds like a recipe for disaster — and for much of the season it was Lecanto that was plagued by that formula.

But in Tuesday’s first round District 5A-6 girls basketball tournament game, it was Citrus — the team with four 20-win seasons in a row and the district’s top seed — that had to battle those maladies. And it was Lecanto that was only too happy to help the Hurricanes down that road.

The Panthers overcame a 25-9 second-quarter deficit, trimming it to 25-19 at the half and then pulling to within 29-27 with 6:04 remaining in the game, before a pair of Shally Morales three-pointers allowed Citrus to rebuild its cushion, one the ’Canes held on to en route to a 43-33 triumph.

Morales would finish with a game-high 17 points, connecting on 4-of-6 three-pointers. DeeAnna Moehring topped Lecanto with 15.

“I think we came out maybe looking too far ahead,” admitted Citrus coach Dave Hamilton, referring to Thursday’s upcoming district final against Crystal River. “I tried to tell them, to warn them. But we just came out flat, nothing fell for us.

“It was the worst game we’ve played all year. But like I’ve always said, I’d rather be lucky than good.”

With starting guard Kiersten Weaver nursing a muscle pull and sitting on the bench for most of the game, the Hurricanes had problems.

“If you could wrap up this game in two words, it would be Kiersten Weaver,” Hamilton said.

Lecanto played a role, to be certain, playing its best game against Citrus this season. The Panthers lost during the regular season to the Hurricanes 51-16 and 61-23, turning the ball over more than 35 times in each. But this time, they forced nearly as many as they had. Lecanto committed 29 turnovers; Citrus had 26.

The game’s personality took shape in the second quarter. A triple by Morales with 3:20 left in the half pushed Citrus’ lead to 25-9, but Moehring answered for Lecanto with a three-pointer 20 seconds later, and that ignited a 10-0 Panther run before halftime.

It was clear the Hurricanes were off their game. After committing 16 first-half turnovers, they started the second just as poorly, missing their first seven shots while committing four more turnovers. A basket by Lecanto’s Taylor Mitchell with 3:19 left in the third narrowed the gap to 25-24 and pushed the Panther rally to 15-straight points.

None of which surprised Lecanto coach Brittany Szunko.

“I really thought it would come down to a last-second shot,” she said. “And it could have without a few missed free throws and a few mistakes.

“We’ve improved tremendously, more than I anticipated. We’ve been playing very well down the stretch, but we’re inexperienced in close games to be honest with you and it showed tonight.”

What got the Hurricanes back on track were a pair of baskets by freshman forward Danielle Smith in the final three minutes of the third that allowed them to take a 29-24 lead into the fourth. But a hoop by Brandi Dowling and a Moehring free throw to start the quarter got Lecanto back to within a pair.

It wasn’t until Morales nailed her third and fourth triples of the game that the Hurricanes were able to pull away, outscoring Lecanto 14-6 the rest of the way.

Micah Jenkins collected nine points, five steals and four assists for Citrus, and Shenelle Toxen totaled seven points, seven rebounds and six steals.

“Coach Szunko has done a great job with that team,” Hamilton said. “It’s always hard to beat a team three times.”

It’s something Citrus will have to do again Thursday against Crystal River to win a district title.