AVON PARK - Hoops fans rejoice, the boys basketball season is underway.
Avon Park hosted the annual Bill Jarrett Preseason Tip Off, which brought Lake Region, Kissimmee Liberty, and county rival Sebring together on the hardwood Thursday night.
Playing in the night cap, the Red Devils survived a thriller against Lake Region, silencing the Thunder with a series of clutch baskets down the stretch to win 52-49.
In the earlier game, Sebring let Liberty get off a last-second shot in regulation to force overtime, as the Blue Streaks eventually fell to the Chargers by a score of 62-58.
"We found our rhythm as the game went on, and really took care of the ball down the stretch," said Avon Park coach Marty O'Hora. "We got rid of the one-man dribbling, did a real good job on the boards, and in the second half just looked for each other."
After a low-scoring first quarter, Lake Region took a two-point lead into halftime on a Thunder layup just before the buzzer.
Despite the last-second dagger, the Devils came out focused in the third quarter. With Lake Region leading by eight, back-to-back 3-pointers from Alfred Brown and Recarus Burley electrifed the crowd and put the Thunder on their heels.
But Lake Region turned a flurry of Red Devils turnovers into points and quickly retook the lead.
Trailing 45-39, the Devils rolled off a 6-0 run. Following a Lake Region make at the free-throw line, Burley hit another 3-point shot to put the Devils up 49-46 with just over a minute left to play.
Lake Region countered with a three of their own, but Jon Mason responded with a fast break layup to put Avon Park up 51-49 with just seconds remaining.
The Thunder were forced to foul, and the Devils iced the game at the free-throw line.
After a tumultuous season last year, O'Hora said he was really pleased with the attitude his players displayed on the court Thursday night.
"All communication was constructive criticism tonight," he said. "Where as last year, we had a lot of arguments. But this team has come a long way, it's great to see."
Tyrone Perry led the Devils in scoring, netting a game-high 15 points thanks to some acrobatic plays. Brown was next with 11, while Mason added 10. Julio Olma paced Lake Region with 10.
Meanwhile, in the opening game, Sebring left more to be desired from its free-throw shooting.
After a back-and-forth first half against Liberty, the Streaks took command down the stretch, as Luke Ancrum scored after getting fouled.
After Liberty split two foul shots to take a one-point lead, Terrell Williams put the Streaks up by two when he soared past two defenders for a layup.
But Connor Cook took a gamble on the in-bounds, which allowed his man to drive past him, and Liberty took the ball the full length of the court before hitting a buzzer-beating layup to send the game into overtime.
The Streaks couldn't hold on in the extra period, as Lake Region was nearly perfect from the charity stripe, as the Chargers put Sebring away, 62-58.
"I see what I have, and I know where we're going," said Sebring coach Princeton Harris. "We're not going to back away, but we know we have to work, not just on our free throws, but on our defense as well."
While his team's intensity never waned, his Streaks were haunted by their foul shooting. Sebring was an abysmal 16 of 36 from the free-throw line, and Harris knows that won't get it done in the regular season.
"I'm excited about this year, but I know it just takes time," he said. "We've only had three practices right now, and we only put in two offenses."
And much like Avon Park, Sebring is trying to get the football players on its roster back into basketball shape.
"There hasn't been much practice time yet, but once I get more time in with the guys, I really see us starting to peak."
Keisean Hester paced the Streaks in scoring, putting in 11 points. Ancrum, Terrell Williams, and Rolando Powery each added nine, while Cook scored eight.
Sebring and Avon Park will be in action again today, as they wrap of the final day of the tip off tournament. The Streaks play first at 1 p.m., followed by the Red Devils at 3.