By:  J. Daniel Pearson for Positively Osceola

With star player Alex Springs sitting on the bench in foul trouble for long stretches of the game, sophomore center Malaki Baker scored eight points, blocked six shots and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead the St. Cloud Bulldogs to a 49-42 upset win over Harmony in boys basketball on Wednesday night.

“He (Baker) is really starting to come into his own,” St. Cloud coach Tommy Billiteri said.  “When Alex had to sit down early, his play kept us in the game.  Malaki was certainly was a difference maker tonight but you could say that about a bunch of our guys.  Everyone gave maximum effort we had some different guys make key plays when we needed them the most.”

It was a physical game throughout and Springs found himself on the bench just two minutes into the game when he picked up a second offensive foul.  But neither team could find an offensive rhythm and two big blocks by Baker kept the game close as Harmony forged a 9-6 lead after one period.

Springs would then make his presence felt when he re-entered the game with six minutes remaining in the second — scoring nine points in that stretch as the Bulldogs used a 15-7 period to take a 21-16 lead into the locker room.  

Things would get dicey midway through the third period.  

Springs would return to the bench after picking up his fourth foul with 3:25 remaining in the third.  Still St. Cloud was able to maintain the lead when Ryan Rodriguez was knocked to the floor while making a driving layup with 1:35 remaining in third period.  Several players on both teams got into a shoving match after the play and three technical fouls were called – two on St. Cloud and one on Harmony.  

After officials sorted things out, it was determined two of the technicals would cancel each other out.  Rodriguez missed his plus-one free throw, but Harmony’s Sylus Cory missed both ends of the technical and Harmony failed to take advantage of ensuing possessions as the quarter ended with the Bulldogs holding on to  34-29 advantage.

Harmony would use its full court press to stage a fourth period comeback.  

The Longhorns would force four turnovers in the period and Vlad Torrado, who led all scorers with  21 points, hit two big three pointers in the period – the second one putting Harmony ahead 42-41.

“He (Torrado) is such a tremendous player, our game plan was to never lose track of him where he’s was on the floor,” Billiteri said.  “Unfortunately we did lose him a few times down the stretch and he took advantage of it.”

But after Torrado’s basket, back-up  guard Elias Torres would make the play of the game – hitting a deep three ball from the corner to put St. Cloud back in front for good – 44-42.  Torres and Baker would then make key plays in the final two minutes to seal the win.  Torres, who scored seven points – all in the fourth quarter – would add two free throws and a big steal; while Baker had three rebounds and blocked shot as St. Cloud scored the final eight points in the game.

Although he was limited in minutes, Springs led all St. Cloud scorers with 14 points.  Diomar Ortiz added eight.  

It was St. Cloud’s fifth straight win and pushed their season record to 11-5.  It also gave them a split of its regular season series with Harmony, who fell to 11-3 with the loss.  The two teams could meet again in two weeks during the 2024 Orange Belt Conference Tournament, slated for the Week of Jan.  22-26.

But more importantly for Billiteri and the St. Cloud program, the win moved them a step closer to recording their first winning season in a long, long time.  According to MaxPreps, whose records go back to 2005-06, St. Cloud had endured 18 consecutive losing seasons and school officials said some research would have to take place to determine when the last St. Cloud winning season actually took place.  The closest was a 12-13 record in 2019-20.

Billiteri, a former St. Cloud player, is in his first year as head coach and said changing that losing culture at the school was his mission.   “I have to admit, I’m part of that streak, we won just two games my senior year,” Billiteri added.  “Developing a winning culture is not something that happens overnight but we are taking a lot of positive steps forward so far this season.”