LECANTO — For the current members of Lecanto’s boys basketball team, success has certainly been fleeting.
The Panthers have endured three straight losing seasons, and gone winless in the county over the past two.
But on Friday night in their home gym, they had something to celebrate. Riding some hot shooting early, Lecanto ended a 12-game skid versus Citrus with a 67-50 victory.
“I know it’s exciting for the seniors,” Lecanto head coach Frank Vilardi said. “To be able to beat them in the last game at home against Citrus, I’m real happy for them. They’ve had a long four years and I’m really, really happy for them, that they battled through and showed a lot of heart tonight.”
This is Vilardi’s first year back on the bench for the Panthers (2-2, 2-1 District 6A-7) since 2012-13. That happens to be the last season in which Lecanto defeated the Hurricanes (1-4, 1-3 6A-7), on Jan. 4, 2013.
“It’s exciting. We’ve never beat a county opponent like that before,” said junior forward Caden Loreth. “Since it’s the beginning of the season, it’s a good start. We’re going to hopefully carry this on and push through for the rest of the season.”
Over the first two weeks, the Panthers had been averaging just 42.7 points per contest and never scored higher than 43. However, Citrus came in permitting an average of 77.3 points and those defensive woes showed no signs of disappearing.
“We continue to make teams look like offensive powerhouses,” Citrus head coach Tom Densmore said. “You don’t win many high school basketball games giving up 77.
“I just told them now I’ve got to get some things figured out. Find out why we’re not very good on defense. Find out who can play defense, who can’t play defense. Maybe I’ve got the wrong people in the wrong spots, but we can’t keep going the way we’re going.”
Lecanto gained momentum in the second quarter, outscoring the ’Canes 27-11. Daniel Nesby’s 3-pointer gave the hosts their highest offensive output of the season with 1:32 still to go in the opening half, making it 45-29.
Angelo Serreno blocked a shot, grabbed the loose ball and went down the court for a layup to push the lead to 47-29 as 38 seconds remained before the intermission.
That was the score going into the third quarter, when the Panthers limited Citrus to one point on a Tony Shamblin free throw.
The ’Canes didn’t record their first made field goal of the second half until D.J. Joia’s long 2-pointer with 6:28 left to play. By that point, they already trailed 56-30.
Joia was one of the players inserted when Densmore made wholesale changes to his lineup late in the third quarter. Joia scored 13 points in the fourth, knocking down three shots from beyond the arc.
One of those long-range bombs cut the deficit to 63-49 at the 3:01 mark, but Citrus could pull no closer. Clayton Looper had 11 points for the ’Canes.
“For that group to come in off the bench, most of them had not been in the game at all. So they’re kind of coming in cold, but you wouldn’t have known,” Densmore said. “I thought they came in and gave us a spark, gave us some life, and maybe I need to do that earlier in the game.”
It was a balanced effort for Lecanto, as four of five starters reached double figures in scoring. It was Loreth, though, who paced the Panthers with 19 points to go with six boards and two steals.
“Just pass and cut, and just drive and attack as hard as you can,” Loreth said. “We just played as a team and the ball must have came to me.”
Lecanto combined to hit on seven 3-point attempts. Nesby made four of them, ending up with 13 points, while Andy Garcia scored 12 points with two treys. Serreno tallied 13 points and Brent Allan hauled in 15 rebounds.
“We felt like we could get the ball inside a little bit, and Brent Allan and Caden played great and our bigs played great,” Vilardi said. “We felt like we could rebound and maybe get some second-chance points. We worked really hard on spreading the floor and attacking.
“It was just good to hit some shots early. When you hit some shots early, it loosened everybody up. … It was one of those nights where we hit shots and they didn’t, so it was good.”