Region girls basketball: Clearwater 54, Punta Gorda Charlotte 52
CLEARWATER – Paul Lang built everything for this moment.
"I scheduled a tough schedule for us this year," the Clearwater coach said. "We had some tough losses, but all of those games prepared us for (Thursday night)."
That was a Class 7A quarterfinal where Punta Gorda Charlotte repelled fourth-quarter deficits as large as eight points to tie the score on a brawny 10-foot floater from Kayla Lamb (game-high 24 points) with 15.4 seconds left.
But the Tornadoes weren't fazed. Senior point guard Lexie McDuffy drove the lane, collapsed the Tarpon defense, and kicked the ball right to Misha O'Neal. Standing on the 3-point line, the junior calmly drained the long jumper with 2.5 seconds remaining, and Clearwater held on for the 54-52 victory.
Next up for the Tornadoes (21-5) will be District 10 champ Cape Coral in the semifinals Tuesday.
"We were looking for the right shot, an open play, one where we had a chance to make a great shot, not a fast shot," said O'Neal (11 points).
"Whoever was open was going to take that shot," said Lang of a squad that has no one averaging double-digits in scoring. "We have total confidence in everybody."
The finish wasn't foretold by Clearwater's rocky start, shooting just 23-percent (7-of-31) from the field and missing five free throws in the first half. The Tornadoes' defense was in form, leaving a halftime deficit of just three at 27-24, and only got better as the night progressed.
"We tweaked our D a little bit," said Lang. "No. 13 (Kelyn Moses with eight first-half points, nine total) was killing us and we wanted to make her work for everything."
The defensive intensity translated to a more aggressive offense as Alleyah Williams (12 points on four 3s), Carrie Lee (nine points) and Alex Hannah drained third-quarter treys to put Clearwater on top. When Olivia Jones muscled in a layup off of a O'Neal feed, the Tornadoes had their biggest lead at 48-40 with 5:03 left in the game.
But foul trouble for the hosts was damaging, sending Charlotte (16-10) to the free-throw line 16 times, making 12 to create a one-possession game and set up heroic efforts from both sides.
"(McDuffy, who finished with nine points, six rebounds, three assists, two steals) molded through the defense and threw a great pass," said O'Neal. "I just zoned out, didn't think about the defense, never thought about the seconds, just about getting the ball in that hoop."
And that focus, from O'Neal and her teammates, moved Clearwater one step farther in the playoffs.