LAND O’LAKES — As the final seconds ticked off the clock Tuesday during Land O’Lakes’ 69-60 region semifinal victory over Gulf, Gators senior point guard Shanel Sweet thought back to her three seasons at Gaither, where she was the star on a mediocre team that never made it to the playoffs.
She thought about the pain from injuries to both her thumbs that forced her to tape the digit on her right hand before the game before ripping off the tape late in the game with her free-throw stroke suffering.
But mostly she thought about the elation from leading her Gators teammates to the region final for the first time in Land O’Lakes history.
When the clock hit zero, Sweet pulled the front of her jersey over her eyes.
She put her head in her hands.
And she cried.
In a showdown between the best teams on the North Suncoast, Sweet made her case to be recognized as the area’s top player.
Sweet scored 32, including 21 in a masterful fourth-quarter performance to help Land O’Lakes (23-2) pull away.
“It was overwhelming,” Sweet said. “I knew it was going to be a tough game. We played our hearts out. My whole team did great. We just fought through it, we fought to the end.”
Sweet had just nine points until hitting a running jumper in the lane as the third-quarter clock expired. That gave Land O’Lakes a 42-41 lead it would not relinquish as the Gators proceeded to go on a 12-0 run into the fourth to take control.
“I haven’t made a last-second shot all season, so to do that at that time of the game, it definitely sparked our team and started us up for the fourth quarter,” Sweet said.
Gulf (24-5) cut the Gators’ lead to five on a pair of Caitlin Corbitt free throws with 4:36 to go, but Nicole Woodard hit a jumper from the free-throw line, Sweet hit a free throw and added another basket and Kendra Sheets scored on a layup to push the Gators’ lead back to 12.
Gulf didn’t get closer than six the rest of the way.
“All season, we wanted this game so bad,” Land O’Lakes coach Laurie Tyszko said.
The Gators’ nemesis for much of the year was foul trouble, but it was Gulf that was hurt by early whistles. Corbitt and Lexi Schulman each picked up two fouls in the first quarter, and Leighlani Paselio, who finished with 15 points, got her second early in the second quarter.
With both teams struggling to execute early, the Gators were keyed in the first half by a trio of 3-pointers from Julia Della Penna. The senior guard helped the Gators build a 15-14 advantage after the first quarter and take a seven-point lead into halftime.
Gulf, behind 18 points from Nicole Adams and 12 from Hannah Kotzen, battled back to take the lead twice in the third quarter.
But that’s when Sweet hoisted her teammates on her small frame and carried them to the region finals, one win away from the state final four in Lakeland.