By Bruce Robins, Sun Correspondent
PORT CHARLOTTE — Janae Dennard scored 19 points, including the clinching free throws in the final minute, as Port Charlotte hung on to defeat Lemon Bay, 41-39, in a Class 7A-District 10 girls basketball matchup Friday night.
For the second straight night, the Manta Rays found themselves trailing by ten points, came back to take the lead, but couldn’t hold on in the fourth quarter. The Pirates were 8 of 12 from the foul line in the final period after sinking just 8 of 23 in the first three quarters.
“I’m very proud of how we hung in there at the end,” Pirates coach Kevin Purcell said. “We made our free throws down the stretch. We gave up some key rebounds that we’ve got to clean up a little bit, but give Lemon Bay tons of credit. They will battle you till the end.”
Both teams struggled to score points in the first half, but a late surge gave Port Charlotte (3-9, 2-5) a 25-15 advantage at the intermission. It was all Lemon Bay (7-5, 4-4) in the third period, however, as the Manta Rays outscored the Pirates 14-3 in the quarter to take a 29-28 lead on Lauren Maheu’s free throw.
“We talked about just coming back and playing together at halftime,” Lemon Bay coach Mike Young said. “We’ve got to play together and get some stops and rebounds. We settled down and the next thing you know, we found ourselves in the lead. But from there we got tentative. Port Charlotte and Lemon Bay has been these kind of physical, hard fought games for years. They came to play tonight and we knew they would. We did a nice job of coming back, but now we’ve got to learn how to close it out and win.”
The fourth quarter featured five lead changes. Port Charlotte took a 34-31 lead on a three-pointer by Ashlyn Henderson, but baskets by Breanna Nelson and Francesca Gallucci put Lemon Bay back on top 35-34.
Dennard sank two free throws with two minutes left to give the Pirates a 36-35 lead, but Nelson countered with two of her own with 1:51 to play to make it 37-36. A Dennard foul shot with 1:25 left tied it at 37-37, and a steal and layup by Gerda Guerrier with 1:09 to play gave Port Charlotte the lead for good.
A Kelsey Hansen follow shot cut the lead to 40-39 with 16 seconds remaining, but Dennard made 1 of 2 from the line with 9 seconds left to push the lead back to 41-39, and Lemon Bay couldn’t get off a tying shot before the final horn.
Once again, it was Nelson who led the comeback for the Manta Rays. The senior guard scored all 14 of her points in the second half and led the way defensively.
“She’s everywhere,” Young said. “She’s always on the ball and always involved in the plays. She is like the fire behind us. She created a lot of opportunities for us, and the team feeds off her energy and toughness.”
Gallucci scored nine points for the Manta Rays and Maheu added eight. Guerrier was the Pirates second leading scorer with eight, as she and Dennard combined to score 13 of the Pirates 16 second half points.
“It’s easy to come in and look at the scoreboard at the start of the fourth and say, ‘man, we just gave up a 10-point lead,'” Purcell said. “You can fold your tent, but they battled. It’s a nice team win going into the holidays.”
PORT CHARLOTTE 41, LEMON BAY 39
Lemon Bay 7 8 14 10 — 39
Port Charlotte 9 16 3 13 — 41
Lemon Bay (39): Breanna Nelson 14, Gallucci 9, Maheu 8, Hansen 4, Mamalis 2, Carley 2. Totals: 13(1) 12-26 39.
Port Charlotte (41): Janae Dennard 19, Guerrier 8, Henderson 7, Baermann 5, Livingston 2. Totals: 12(1) 16-35 41.