Bulldogs claim district basketball crown

Stiff defense down the stretch guided Zephyrhills to a 47-45 win Friday night over Wesley Chapel to take the Class 5A-District 6 title.

The senior-heavy Bulldogs watched district titles slip away over the last two seasons, but the 2022 crown belongs to them.

This is the third meeting between the Bulldogs and Wildcats with Zephyrhills claiming all three wins. The district title game was the tightest of the three matchups.

“It was a great defensive effort on both sides,” said Head Coach Mike Novak. “Teams that play good defense last this long. For all these seniors, this is fantastic.”

The packed house at Wesley Chapel watched 12 lead changes as both teams battled under the basket for rebounds and tough points. The easy points from the free throw line were hard to come by for Zephyrhills as the Bulldogs went 6-for-20 from the charity stripe.

The surprise for the night was the tough, gritty play of Joe Barnes coming off the bench with eight key points, six rebounds and a critical block with seven seconds left in the game to seal the win.

“I can give all the credit to my team,” Barnes said after celebrating. “They did all the work. They put in all the work for me and I did some more for them. I just wanted to win so bad. We came out with the win and they are such a tough team.

“It feels good that we’re finally district champions after all these years.”

The scoring was consistent with sophomore Preston Linville canning 11, and seniors Jimmy McAuley and Kevin Pagan with 10 apiece.

“This is we worked all year for,” McAuley said. “We fought hard. We were down and we didn’t let that get to us. We just put our heads down and focused all four quarters.

“This is our year. We got one.”

For Pagan, finally being able to hoist the championship trophy is a long overdue.

“Since I’ve been here, we have had a district championship and we’ve been there couple times and fell short,” Pagan said. “It feels good to get this one by two points with a team that I’ve been with since freshman year.”

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