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LAKELAND — Officially, the basketball court at the Lakeland Center is 10 feet longer baseline to baseline than the one Jefferson practiced on all season.
But from the point the Dragons stepped on that court for their first state tournament game Friday morning against Pensacola in the Class 4A state semifinals, it seemed longer than just a few feet. It seemed like an eternity.
From the opening whistle, the Tigers, making their fourth trip to Lakeland in five years, clamped down on the Dragons with a suffocating full-court press. In a season in which Jefferson regularly made good teams look bad, they were the victims in a 65-46 loss.
“We’ve attacked people and done it the same way,” Jefferson coach Tom Mosca said. “We met our match today.
“We probably picked today to play out worst game of the season, both offensively and defensively.Their pressure was great. We didn’t handle it. We’ve handled everybody’s pressure all year long. They never let us get into our offense.”
By Mosca’s count, the Dragons were able to run just one offensive play in the first half. Pensacola forced 26 Jefferson turnovers, 16 in the first half. Getting the ball upcourt against the speedy, swarming Tigers was a challenge on every possession, as was getting a shot. Jefferson shot just 20.7 percent from the field in the first half (6-for-29), falling behind 32-19 at the half.
“I can’t remember a time (we were that uncomfortable), especially playing in Hillsborough County,” Jefferson senior point guard Jade Givens said. “When you come here, the teams you play are awesome. Everyone is great.”
For Jefferson (28-4), the Dragons’ defensive intensity and offensive balance led them through the county schedule with relative ease. Their only three losses heading into Friday came in the Aspire Elite Classic in Fort Myers. But Pensacola’s speed had the Dragons catching their breath before the half.
“They were quicker,” Mosca said. “They played with us defensively. They’re the first team that ran with us defensively and stopped us and put us in a spot.”
Jefferson had just one scorer in double figures; Shayla Wilson had 11 points and 12 rebounds. The Dragons’ sensational backcourt of Givens and Laurie’ Beaty were just 3-for-20 from the field.
“We didn’t come to play the way we wanted to play,” Beaty said. “We played a totally different ball game. We didn’t play Jefferson ball at all.”
But Givens, the team’s lone starting senior and team captain, made it clear her teammates would learn from the experience.
“They’re going to be here next year,” she said. “I have total faith and confidence in this team. They’re great, they’re young and they’re going to come back here next year.”