FORT WALTON BEACH - His team trailing Fort Walton Beach 29-23 late in the fourth quarter, Pensacola's Mitchell Maxwell grabbed a long rebound, glided up the right sideline and beelined toward the hoop. Nothing stood between the 5-foot-8 point guard and an easy layup.
But on this night, on this court, a venue where the Vikings entered the Region 1-6A quarterfinal a perfect 12-0 on the year, no basket would come easy. And right in front of his student section, Tyrone Culbreth let that emphatically be known.
The 6-foot-5 senior came out of nowhere, lifted above the rim from the opposite side and blocked the layup attempt, bringing the student section to its feet and serving as the poster boy of the Vikings' shutdown defensive effort in a 33-30 win over the Tigers.
“The coaches preach defense, defense, defense, and that's what we delivered tonight,” said senior guard Blake James, who delivered a game-high nine points and three steals.”
Advancing to the region semifinals for the first time since 2011, when they advanced to the final four, the Vikings held the Tigers to 27 percent shooting, forced 16 turnovers and didn't allow any Pensacola player to score more than seven points.
And the face of the lights-out, physical defensive performance was Culbreth, who delivered four blocks and protected the defensive glass with a game-high 16 boards.
“Whether it's grabbing rebounds, diving on the floor or blocking shots, I'll do whatever it takes for my team to win,” Culbreth said.
The defensive intensity canceled out a woeful shooting effort from the Vikings, who shot just 12 of 39 from the floor, 4 of 17 from beyond the arc and 5 of 11 from the foul stripe.
Even so, they led by as many as 11 in the first half and never trailed.
“We played every single possession, every single pass, every single dribble,” FWB coach John Lavin said. “When you do that you can overcome nights when you don't have it offensively.”
The win, though, was never easily in hand for the Vikings, who worked the clock in the final minute ahead 31-30.
Taking nearly 50 seconds of the clock, the ball found McKinley Stephens, who was fouled with 21 seconds left to play.
Calmly, the senior stepped to the line and drilled the pair of free throws to push the lead to three.
“I'm always ready to knock down free throws,” Stephens said. “That's what I've done all year.”
The only person in the gym more confident then Stephens was Lavin.
“Him at the free throw line, he has ice water in his veins,” Lavin said. “That's why we have him in the game.”
Pensacola (19-11) tried to respond with a 3-pointer to force overtime, but an off-balance 24-footer from Chris Hamilton from the right wing glanced off the backboard and rimmed out. Emerging with the rebound was Trace Ryan, who had a chance to seal the win at the charity stripe with 3.5 seconds left. The guard, however, missed both attempts, the last of which was batted around before going out of bounds with 1.8 seconds left.
But on the following inbounds, James delivered a steal to seal the Vikings' 20th win on the season to set up a date with a one-loss Pine Forest team Tuesday night.
“We have to have the mindset of going after it,” James said of the tilt against Pine Forest. “We can't give them an opportunity to settle in and we have to come out with energy and go from there. But we're ready.”