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LAKELAND — What was expected to be an elegant, high-scoring Class 4A state semifinal between Leesburg and Lakewood quickly became an artless grind Friday morning at the Lakeland Center.
In the chaos, players were as ungainly shooting layups as 3-pointers. Balls bounced off hands as much as they did the rim. Passes were frequently stolen, then handed right back. In 32 minutes, the teams combined for 36 turnovers.
Eventually, the Spartans proved more adept at disorder, or slightly less ragged, overcoming a six-point deficit in the first half with a 23-6 run that extended into the fourth quarter to defeat the Yellow Jackets 48-31.
Saturday, Lakewood (25-4) faces Pensacola in the 4A championship at 12:05 p.m. The Spartans are trying to win their first state title since 1989, when coach Necole Tunsil led the program to its first.
“This team knows all about the last time we won state,” said Tunsil, who returned to coach her alma mater seven seasons ago. “I try to use that as motivation. I float around my championship ring and they don’t have it. But they’re hungry.”
In the first quarter, it appeared Lakewood would coast to victory. The Spartans ran up and down the floor, using their speed to combat Leesburg’s height advantage. Scoring on 3-pointers and transition layups, Lakewood went up 14-4.
Then the grace was gone.
The Spartans’ once-fluid offense was stalled 24 feet from the basket as black-and-gold silhouettes of much taller girls waited for them in the middle.
Lakewood tried to step back and fire, but kept missing. The Spartans also were turning the ball over. During a seven-minute stretch between the first and second quarters, they missed nine straight shots and had seven turnovers.
Leesburg (23-7) made them pay. The Yellow Jackets went on a 17-1 run to go ahead 21-15.
Lakewood responded by scoring the last four points of the first half, including a short jumper by Taye’lor Trotter as time expired to cut the deficit to 21-19.
The Spartans, despite shooting 27 percent in the first half, committing 11 turnovers and having two players (Kasey Drayton and Kayla Roberts) with three fouls each, were fortunate to be within striking distance.
“It could have been worse,” Tunsil said. “We dodged a bullet.”
The third quarter was back and forth for the first three minutes. Then the momentum changed. Trotter forced turnovers. Shineice Beamon blocked shots. Alvarado scored inside.
Points started coming in bunches for the Spartans, who outscored Leesburg 15-6 in the third quarter to go up 34-27.
“I think we panicked a little bit in the first half,” said Trotter, who finished with a team-high 23 points. “We weren’t playing the way we’re capable of. We said in the locker room that we just had to go out and do what we do.”
Trotter, a senior, shared the bulk of the scoring load with her younger sister, Alvarado, a sophomore who had 22 points. Together, they scored 45 of their team’s 48 points. Beamon came through in other ways, finishing with 11 rebounds and eight blocked shots.
“At this stage you either get one or you don’t,” Tunsil said of a state title. “I’ve got mine. The players don’t have one yet. But they could get theirs (Saturday).”