SEBRING - No lead is safe when Avon Park is on the court.
The Red Devils rebounded from a shaky first half to upend Sebring by a score of 60-56 in the opening round of the annual Taveniere Tournament Thursday night in Blue Streaks Gym.
The nondistrict win improved Class 4A Avon Park to 11-3 overall while Class 5A Sebring dropped to 6-3.
"With this team, I'm a lot more worried with being up by 10 then being down by 10," said Devils coach Marty O'Hora. "But we really came back from our lapses in the first half, got more aggressive, and managed to pull away in the second half."
Always an intense rivalry no matter what sport is being contested, Avon Park and Sebring played in front of a large, raucous crowd. But the game got off to an anti-climatic start thanks to two quick turnovers from each team.
The Streaks managed to shake off the jitters first, though, and held a 17-11 lead at the end of the opening quarter. Sebring's Terrell Williams was unstoppable from 3-point range, knocking down two momentum-swinging deep shots in the first half. He finished with a team-high 14 points. Back-to-back layups from Keizhan Hester and Jordan Strickland followed Williams' second three, giving Sebring a 32-16 lead with just 1:40 to go in the first half. Sebring rode into the break with a 32-21 lead, and the Streaks fans in attendance let out a sizeable roar.
But everything changed in the third quarter.
Avon Park came out swinging, using high-pressure defense to stymie Sebring, as the Devils allowed the Streaks a paltry five points. Alfred Brown and Recarus Burley terrorized Sebring's ball handlers, forcing the Streaks into a flurry of mistakes. The duo finished the game with eight combined steals.
While Brown and Burley took care of the defensive load, Avon Park's Gus Owens finally emerged on offense. Usually one of the Devils' most potent scoreres, Owens was MIA in the first half. But he exploded in the second half with a slew of fast break layups to finish with a game-high 15 points.
As the quarter wound down, the Devils had clawed their way back into the game, trailing by only two points, 37-35.
"We just didn't come out an execute," said Sebring coach Princeton Harris. "There was a 10-point swing in the third quarter. I kept trying to get us to go inside, but we wanted to shoot threes. I think it actually hurt us that we shot so well in the first half, it made us too confident."
"And when the shot's not falling, you've got to go inside. We've got to learn to play to the flow of the game."
The final period was the most entertaining of the game. Finally feeling the rhythm of the game, both teams traded baskets with relative ease. After three consecutive scores, Avon Park held a slight advantage, 52-49, with under three minutes left to play in regulation.
A Sebring layup cut Avon Park's lead down to just one point. After the Devils missed a contested layup, Sebring's Williams snagged the rebound, pushed the ball up the floor, and pulled up for a 3-pointer. The shot was good, giving the Streaks a 54-52 lead with less than a minute to play.
Calling a time out to refocus his team, O'Hora drew up a play for the Devils' long-range specialist, Daemon Braswell. After a handful of passes around the perimeter, Braswell calmly launched the ball from deep, where it cruised through the net with a picturesque swish. Avon Park now had the advanated, 55-54, with just over 30 seconds remaining.
The game settled into an icy battle of wills from there, as each team went to the free-throw line to settle the outcome. Trailing 57-56, the Streaks had one last chance to make a play. Quantrae Rouse appeared to get a clean steal from Burley, but was whistled for a foul, sending Burley to the line, where he clinched the win. In a game plagued by questionable officiating that impacted both sides, Harris said he was upset to see the game end the way it did.
"It's the kind of thing that's been a part of this rivalry for the last few years," he said. "But it went both ways. Our guys got hammered and there was no call, and their guys got hammered with no call."
The loss set Sebring up with another Highlands County rival, Lake Placid, as the Streaks played the Green Dragons Friday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. Avon Park, meanwhile, faced Class 6A Teneroc in the nightcap at 7:30. Results were not available at press time, but be sure to check Sunday's Highlands Today sports section for the complete stories and photos.