LEHIGH ACRES — Before the Port Charlotte High School boys basketball team took the floor for a highly-anticipated matchup with Lehigh, the players sat back in the hallway between the court and the locker room.
They didn’t have the typical stone-faced focus that players usually take on during pregame. To the surprise of coach Kip Rhoten, they were instead debating which Chick-Fil-A sauce is better.
To this point, no game has been too big for them — not playing in Charlotte’s Fish Bowl or traveling to play the No. 2 team in southwest Florida. Night in and night out they play their style, relaxed and on their terms.
So far that’s translated into a 21-0 record.
Brandishing their elite defense and leaning on its seasoned veterans late at the stripe, Port Charlotte held off the high-octane Lightning (14-7) on Thursday night for a 56-51 win.
“We have a lot of experience from last year,” senior Shemar Fleurissant said. “Last year in those situations we would’ve buckled under pressure. This year we know in situations what to do. I know when we’re put in those tight situations our team isn’t gonna freak out.”
The game got off to a sloppy start. Missed shots and turnovers made for a sluggish opening for the Pirates, who only scored five points in the first quarter. But it didn’t take long for them to find their groove.
Junior Colby Schmutz entered in the second quarter, scoring six points and giving the Pirate offense a rejuvenated look. Port Charlotte opened the quarter on a 6-2 run and held Lehigh, a team that averages just over 70 points per game, to six points for the quarter.
The Pirates then gave themselves some breathing room in the third quarter, where they built a nine-point lead. Six different Pirates scored and they forced seven turnovers.
But Lehigh charged back late in the fourth by forcing timely turnovers. With 1:40 left, Lehigh junior Darron Humphrey hit a free throw and then scored a layup off the ensuing miss to cut the lead to three.
“They were trapping and turning the intensity up and we were turning it over,” Fleurissant said. “We had to regain our composure because we freaked out a little bit toward the end. But we just had to settle down and do what we do and close the game out.”
As they’ve done all season, Port Charlotte closed the game out at the free-throw line. Seniors Tyler Perry and Alex Romero combined for 13 free throws in the fourth quarter and the Pirates went 13 of 16 overall for the quarter.
“I told them, they’re coming,” Port Charlotte coach Kip Rhoten said. “They’re in their backyard, they’re not gonna give up. They came, we withstood it. We kept our composure. We played our defense and made our foul shots in the fourth quarter. Give a lot of credit to those seniors, they’re a special bunch.”
With the help of the Pirate faithful, the team has a knack for making opposing gym’s their own when they travel and Lehigh was no different. A consistently rowdy crowd at their backs has enabled this historic run. With two games left in the regular season, it’s something, along with the win streak, Fleurissant wants continued.
“Our fans travel well because we’re doing so well,” Fleurissant said. “Our fans are one of the reasons why we’re 21-0.
“We don’t really talk about being undefeated. We could play the worst team in Florida or the best team, we take it one game at a time and never overlook an opponent. The moment you overlook a game, a team will catch you slipping. We have to be humble.”
PORT CHARLOTTE 56, LEHIGH 51
PC — 5 14 23 14 — 56
LH — 9 6 14 22 — 51
PC: Romero (15), Fleurissant (13), Perry (13), Gainey (7), Schmutz (6), Adderly (3), Rogers (2)
LH: Green (12), Humphrey (11), Desamours (8), Rene (8), Tape (4), Massolas (3), Charles (3), Smith (2)