By Pete Sisk, Sun Correspondent
NAPLES — North Port still hasn’t beaten Gulf Coast in girls basketball.
But they’re just beginning to realize they might be capable of doing just that.
Gulf Coast won Friday night’s District 8A-12 championship game, 73-63, the Sharks’ third win in as many tries against North Port this season.
The Bobcats, as 8A-12 runnerup, travel to Disrict 8A-11 champ Lakewood Ranch on Thursday in the first round of the state playoffs.
Gulf Coast (24-2) jumped out to a 22-2 lead Friday night, but the apparent blowout didn’t happen.
Unlike the first two meetings, won by the Sharks 80-41 and 80-45, the Bobcats came to play Friday night.
“We came out and they were on fire,” North Port coach Dale Huffman said. “They hit three, four, maybe five threes in the first quarter. They put us in a hole. It was bad.
“But we had a game plan, and we got back on it. We started executing, we started putting the ball inside, and we turned it around.”
Gulf Coast hit all six of its 3-point attempts in the first half.
The Bobcats (14-9) cut the margin to seven points on several occasions in the third quarter, and again at 70-63 in the game’s final minute. Gulf Coast was finally able to put the game away at the foul line.
“That’s pure effort by those girls,” Huffman said. “Those girls played their butts off. This is a team that beat us by 40 twice in a row, so you can’t say enough about the way those girls played tonight.
“When you build a hole like that, it’s awful tough to dig your way out. But we tried.”
Alexis Francavilla had 24 points and 16 rebounds for the Bobcats, with Emani Jefferson just missing a double-double of her own (20 points, nine rebounds). Aryana Hough added 10 points for North Port.
Gulf Coast had the advantage of a deeper bench. By game’s end, the Sharks had three players with four fouls and another with three, but managed to hold on. Francavilla fouled out for North Port, with three of her five fouls in the waning moments when the Bobcats were in desperation mode.
“We don’t go very deep, so (Gulf Coast coach Mark Woodruff) did a lot of good subbing. He worked through a lot of foul trouble. So that was pretty impressive.”
With first-half sparkplug Mya Giusto sitting in foul trouble, Jordan Cloutier carried the scoring load for Gulf Coast in the second half.
Cloutier had 15 of her 22 points after intermission to lead the Bobcats. Giusto had 12 points by halftime, then made all her contributions at the foul line in the second half to finish with 19. Yasmeen Chang had 17 points and eight rebounds for the Sharks.
“Aryana worked very hard on Chang,” Huffman said. “Every time she’s guarded her, Chang’s numbers have gone down. Frankie worked hard. Emani played a great game. She cut her turnovers down.”
Not knowing after the game where the Bobcats would play on Thursday, Huffman speculated on the next opponent.
“We’d love to see Sarasota upset Lakewood so (Gulf Coast) get Lakewood and we get another shot at Sarasota,” Huffman said. “That’s a team we know really well.”
However, Huffman would learn later that Lakewood Ranch won 45-32, sending Sarasota down south to face Gulf Coast.
“We haven’t seen Lakewood in two years, but we’re going to get some film on them,” Huffman said. “We’ll put together another game plan, and we’ll do what we can do.”
Thursday’s winners will face each other in the second round of the 8A playoffs, leaving open the possibility of a fourth North Port-Gulf Coast matchup.
GULF COAST 73, NORTH PORT 63
NORTH PORT 7 18 19 19 — 63: Alexis Francavilla 24, Emani Jefferson 20, Blakney 4, Aryana Hough 10, Nazario 5. Totals: 23 (2) 15-23.
GULF COAST 22 16 13 22 — 73: Mya Giusto 19, Jordan Cloutier 22, Yasmeen Chang 17, Hodo 6, C.Belfore 9. Totals: 26 (6) 15-19.