AVON PARK - Call them the cardiac kids of Highlands County.
Avon Park won another thriller in the final round the Bill Jarrett Preseason Tip Off Classic on Saturday, knocking off Liberty on a last-second shot to extinguish the Chargers by a score of 38-36.
Playing in the earlier game, Sebring rebounded from a stunning loss on Thursday to throttle Lake Region by a score of 68-47 to head into the regular season on a positive note.
Avon Park, which played an up-tempo opponent in Lake Region to open the tournament, faced a much more physical team in Liberty.
"They were tough," said Avon Park coach Marty O'Hora. "It helped us that their best player was kind of banged up. But we knew they weren't a jump shooting team, so we really had to work to keep them out of the middle of the floor."
Luckily for the Devils, they had their own terror in the paint - guard Gustavus Owens.
Owens dominated the post for Avon Park, driving past Chargers defenders at will en route to a game-high 22 points. Whenever the Devils' offense stalled, Owens was their fail-safe option; he always seemed to bail them out.
"He hit some really big shots down the stretch," O'Hora said.
Trailing late in the fourth quarter, it appeared as if the Devils would do themselves in. A handful of turnovers off of inbounds passes had the defense scrambling. But right on cue, Owens struck again, sinking a layup off of a Liberty turnover to knot the score at 35 with less than a minute remaining.
Following a Liberty miss, Owens raced down court and drew the foul. Making one of two at the line, he gave Avon Park a 36-35 lead. A dubious blocking foul whistled on Jon Mason put Liberty back at the line, but the Chargers stumbled and could only convert one free throw.
Now it was the Devils' turn to strike. Alfred Brown took the inbounds, but found himself trapped near the three-point line. A wall of defenders forced him into a bad pass, and the ball was intercepted by the Chargers.
Blowing their opportunity to clinch the victory at the free-throw line, Brown made Liberty pay for their mistakes when he barreled down court and floated up a shot in traffic that bounced around the rim a few times before falling in. The Chargers tried a half-court bomb with just a handful of seconds left, but it fell short.
"We just ended up battling and playing from behind," O'Hora said. "And Alfred kept his head up. After making a bad decision, he came back strong."
Despite finishing the preseason with a 2-0 record, O'Hora knows his team will have to cut down on the self-inflicted turnovers if they want to excel when the games really start to count.
"It's early, so we want to spend a lot of time on the fundamentals," he said. "We haven't had a lot of time to really get into practice, but we'll need to cut down on some of the silly mistakes."
Following Owens in scoring was Brown, who put in 9. Dameon Braswell added three for Avon Park, while Liberty's Luis Hernandez paced the Chargers with 12.
Meanwhile, the Blue Streaks, who fell Thursday night to Liberty after lax defense let the Chargers push the game into overtime, wasted little time in turning their game against Lake Region into a laugher.
The Streaks led by 10 at halftime and the Thunder never got within single digits during the second half, as Sebring cruised to a 21-point victory.
"I had them in the gym this morning at practice shooting free throws," Sebring coach Princeton Harris said.
"I was just watching. I didn't even say anything to them."
His players got the message.
After missing 20 free throws against Liberty, Sebring was 22 of 37 against the Thunder. But they wouldn't even need the stellar effort from the charity stripe.
Point guard Connor Cook netted 20, along with a handful of steals, and Keisean Hester added 10 to propel the Streaks to an easy win. On defense, Sebring was just as deadly, as Rolando Powery and Luke Ancrum combined for 14 blocks and 20 rebounds.
With a deeper bench, Harris knows that this season allows him more flexibility to run a high-tempo style of play.
"That's what we want to do, play faster and put the pressure on," he said. "We're deep enough now that we're not going to let up. We're going to get after people."
Harris also credited the unique matchups Lake Region presented with helping to better acclimate his players defensively. Forward Gary Demarest got a full dose of guarding different positions Saturday, as he often found himself guarding one of the Thunder's point guards.
"We want them to have experience getting switched off their man," Harris said. "It's going to happen sometimes. And we don't want it to be a shock to them when it does, so we try and work on different scenarios like that in practice, and we got to see some of that today."
The season begins in earnest for both teams this week. Avon Park will travel to Lake Placid for a Class 4A-District 9 battle against the Green Dragons. Sebring will also be on the road, facing off against Class 7A foe Ridge Community on Thursday. Both games tip off at 7:30 p.m.