ST. PETERSBURG – It took a friendly phone call from a Greenville, Ky., sportswriter Saturday morning to remind Muhlenberg County girls basketball coach Mike Harper of some pretty big news.
If the 19-year veteran's Mustang squad defeated Northeast that evening – winning the Keswick Christian Suncoast Classic title in the process – he would take home his 400th career victory.
With plenty of motivation in place, Muhlenberg cranked up a well-oiled offense that patiently dismantled the Vikings' 2-3 zone and cruised to a 75-42 victory.
"I'm proud of the way the kids played," said Harper, clutching the game ball awarded to him by Keswick Christian girls coach Karrmayne King after the game. "I had no idea of the competition coming into this tourney but I wanted the team to have a good time. We went to the beach Thursday and Friday – our legs were done by the end of (Friday's) game – and we just took it one game at a time."
The Mustangs (11-4) put their stamp on the contest via selfless ball movement and timely fast-break production. Behind two hoops from tourney MVP Raegan Blackburn, Muhlenberg broke out to a quick 12-0 lead and never lost its advantage, stretching the lead to 18 at halftime before drawing away in the fourth quarter.
Blackburn finished with 22 points, including four 3-pointers, getting loads of help from senior Erica Cary (16 points and six rebounds), as well as sophomores Destin Armour and all-tourney team member Grace Hauslein (11 points and five boards each, Armour adding six assists).
"We had a good Christmas break," Harper said. "We went 6-1 and we had good togetherness as a team. We're ready to go home and have a good January and February in district play."
For Northeast (12-4), its tourney highlight came the night before.
"Coming in and reaching the final of anything is always really good, but, honestly, we had Calvary Christian starred on our schedule once the brackets came out," said Vikings coach Will White of a 59-45 semifinal win. "It's a big Pinellas County rivalry, and it really says a lot about the future of our program (to beat them)."
On Saturday, Northeast had its moments. Two 3s from all-tourney player Angel Smith (nine points) and a pair of hoops from Emily Joseph (team-high 12 points) chilled the Mustangs' fast start and drew the Vikings within five in the first quarter. An extended zone defense worked for part of the second quarter and seven third-quarter points from Hannah Merkel helped shave the deficit to 53-36 going into the fourth.
But that's when the Northeast offense chilled and Muhlenberg pulled away.
"(All-tourney player) Kanesha Hall came into herself in this tournament," said White of the senior's weekend wrapping up with a seven-point, four-rebound finals effort. "She's always been a solid player but she started to become more and more aggressive as the weekend went on.
"She and Angel both really took it to another level (at Keswick). They were pleasant surprises this weekend and I'm really excited about that going forward."
In the boys title final, junior and tourney MVP Taylor Trudeau came up clutch late as Mount Dora Christian edged Bradenton Manatee, 75-73.
Trudeau, who finished with 33 points Saturday and 104 in three tourney contests, drained a pair of free throws with 30 seconds left then hauled in a court-length pass from all-tourney teamer Joseph Martz (20 points) for a layup with 8.4 seconds for the winning tally.
Manatee, denied on two attempts on its last possession, was led by Jermaine Graham with 20 points and Carter Bendinghaus with 19 as both were named to the all-tourney team.