ST. PETERSBURG — Lakewood coach Necole Tunsil didn’t take last year’s region playoff loss to Jefferson well.
“I took it personal,” she said.
And so did the rest of the Spartans, which made Tuesday’s 57-54 Class 4A region quarterfinal victory in the rematch that much sweeter.
After a summer and fall devoted to avenging an embarrassing 20-point loss season, the Spartans, behind 22 points from sophomore Tianah Alvarado, finally broke through to arguably the biggest victory of Tunsil’s tenure.
“We knew we were going to win, trust me, we just knew it,” Alvarado said. “We came out tonight with fire.”
It was sloppy, and it was turnover-filled, but the Spartans found a way to erase a Jefferson lead late with one perfect two-minute stretch to advance to Saturday’s region championship, where they will play Naples Barron Collier.
Lakewood trailed 48-43 midway through the fourth quarter when center Shineice Beamon scored inside on a putback, and seconds later Taye’lor Trotter drained a 3-pointer to tie the game with 4:39 remaining.
Beamon then took a feed inside and scored, drawing a foul and sinking her free throw, and Trotter faked another 3-pointer and drove down the lane for a leaner to boost Lakewood to a 53-48 lead.
Another Beamon rebound and free throw capped the 11-0 run, though three minutes still remained.
But Jefferson, which finished 27-2, couldn’t convert on its opportunities down the stretch. The Dragons came up with consecutive steals as they tried to rally, but both times turned it right back over to Lakewood.
They trimmed the Spartans’ lead to 55-52, and in trying to foul Kayla Roberts left Kasey Drayton wide open. Roberts hit her with a pass under the basket and her lay-in with 24 seconds left sealed it.
“The first half looked like two teams that didn’t want to win this game,” said Jefferson coach Jim Baxter. “I told them at halftime both teams were asleep and one of them was going to wake up and win this game. They woke up … just a little bit more than we did.”