The game wasn't decided until a last-second missed shot by Evangelical Christian that gave Marco Island Academy a nerve-racking 70-67 victory on Thursday.
The Manta Rays, 10-11, were outmanned and playing against a taller team, but the Manta Rays responded.
"It was an exciting game to watch," Academy coach Roger Raymond said. "We lost our lead in the fourth quarter, but kept our composure and finished strong for a nice win. We are starting to become a basketball team."
In only its second year of basketball at the two-year-old school, Raymond has diligently coached his players in how to play the game, something he had done for more than 12 years as the Marco Island Charter Middle School boys varsity coach until this season.
During the week the team shows its keen interest in getting better by hitting the Charter School basketball court at 6 a.m. for practice.
The discipline alone to get up that early shows their heart and they had plenty against Evangelical Christian.
The Manta Rays played in front of Evangelical Christian much of the game, but the lack of depth and the Sentinels height was wearing. The Academy faded in the fourth, turning the ball over four times for Evangelical points. The Sentinels took the lead for the first time with 2:10 left in the game at 59-58.
After a time out freshman Cole Stretton hit nothing but net for three points and the Sentinels never led again, although the last two minutes were exciting.
Stretton and Peter Servente combined for the next six points to give the Academy a 67-59 lead, but there was no quit in Evangelical. Led by Jared Pearlman who had 32 points, the Sentinels scratched back to 70-67 with the last shot banging off the rim to give the Academy a hard-earned win.
Jared Jackson, 24 points. Stretton, 22 and Servente, 14, led the Academy on offense and defense.
For the entire second half it was five Sentinels covering three, Jackson, Stretton and Servente. Without an experienced big man up front It was up to those three to make it happen. A key move in the third quarter to give some scoring relief was Brandon Estremera who came off the bench for two straight 3-pointers that upped the Academy lead to 50-43 after three quarters.
"We played good help defense and that's how we can beat teams," Jackson said, "and Cole shot then lights out."
Stretton made four 3-point baskets and was 6-of-6 from the foul line.
"We have the top scorer in the county in Jared and the fifth best freshman scoring guard in the state," Raymond said. "Peter has improved immensely to be a force. Noel Cabrera makes a difference for us on defense."
Evangelical coach Larry Gritton was dejected after the game.
"When you score 67 points you should win," he said. "We have to defend better."
Gritton has most everyone back, but does lose the team's big man and best scorer in Pearlman.
"We lose our big man, but we have most of the team coming back," as Gritton thought about the future.
Raymond too is looking ahead as the team applies for district play next season. The Academy football team was assigned to a district next year, playing with First Baptist Academy, St. John Neumann, Evangelical Christian, Imagine and Southwest Florida Christian.
"We expect we will play some of the same schools for basketball," Raymond said. "The team will get a chance to play in the state playoffs if we can do well."