Florida Gateway College and Pasco-Hernando State College is turning into quite the rivalry.
Players even chirped back and forth heading to the locker room following Saturday’s Suncoast Conference opener.
But the Timberwolves got the last word.
Diamond Smith keyed a second-half rally to lead FGC to a 65-55 win over Pasco-Hernando at the Howard Center. The sophomore guard finished with 24 points, shooting 5/8 from beyond the arc, and scored nine of the T-wolves’ final 20 points as they outscored the Bobcats by 10 over the final nine minutes to win their third straight and sixth of their last seven.
Smith’s biggest 3-pointer came with under nine minutes left to put FGC up 48-45. That started a 9-2 run and the Timberwolves never trailed again.
“For the last two games I haven’t really been scoring like that,” Smith said. “I felt like I needed to come in and get my team better so I just came out and scored.”
Nate Henderson had all seven of his points during the decisive run, all coming from the foul line to go with his 11 rebounds. Kenny Brown and Tay Cobb also scored 10 points apiece while Joshua Cross and Layton Veon finished with six points each.
Veon made two 3-pointers to help keep the T-wolves (10-9, 1-0) in the game when the Bobcats (3-11, 0-1) led 37-33 early in the second half. His second trey pulled FGC within 42-41 before Brown and Cobb each hit a layup to put their team up three.
Warren McLymont, who led the Bobcats with 21 points off the bench, answered with a three to tie the game but they never pulled closer than three the rest of the way after Smith’s go-ahead 3-pointer.
Both teams were coming off of wins Friday night and it showed in their performance as Pasco-Hernando shot just 31 percent from the field and 8/20 from the free throw line while FGC turned the ball over a whopping 24 times.
“We knew it was going to be ugly because they were coming in the same way we were, trying to get that first win in the conference,” FGC coach Charles Ruise said. “They had a game last night as well and we were both coming off victories so it was just a battle that mentally we just had to get over.”
The Timberwolves had to fight and claw all afternoon to make it happen. Despite jumping out to a 12-3 lead, they quickly squandered the lead as the Bobcats responded with a 16-2 run to take a 19-14 lead thanks to three 3-pointers from JaMarcus Clark.
A pair of free throws from Clark later put the Bobcats up 24-20 but the T-wolves answered with another run as Smith and Brown combined to score the final nine points of the half to send their squad into the break up 29-24.
Smith had 15 points in the first half and was a big reason FGC stayed in the game.
“Diamond kept us in the position where we could regain ourselves and get back composed and stay in the game,” Ruise said. “I just can’t say enough about his leadership.”
Clark’s 11 first-half points off the bench were all he’d finish with. FGC shut him down over the final 20 minutes and no other Bobcat scored more than Daniel Derice’s seven points.
Pasco-Hernando’s starters combined to score just 11.
“We put a man with (Clark) and tried to make him do everything off the dribble because when he was catching and shooting he was dead on,” Ruise said. “But we felt like if we could make him catch and put it down, it would throw his rhythm off.”
It was the first of four matchups this season between the two schools, with each one carrying significant weight in the standings because they’re the only two teams in the Suncoast Conference. Pasco-Hernando won the first three meetings last year but FGC took the fourth and then won the conference championship game in their final meeting to qualify for the region tournament.
The next meeting will be at Pasco-Hernando on Jan. 25.
“Last season they came out and beat us at the beginning and it broke us down because we were freshmen,” Smith said. “But I think this is going to give us confidence going into the next three games we have to play against them. It was a good win.”
FGC hosts Florida College on Tuesday at 7 p.m.