LAKELAND — The improbability of Lakewood High School’s why-not-us drive for a Class 4A state title came not with flashy offensive moves but with a suffocating defense.
The Spartans won Pinellas County’s first girls basketball title in 15 seasons and the school’s first since 1989, stunning Pensacola, its far more experienced state championship opponent, in a 53-44 victory Saturday afternoon at the Lakeland Center.
This was the Tigers’ fourth straight trip to the final four without winning a single title, keeping coach Alison Davis and her players without a victory in three championship games during that span.
Lakewood’s young players whooped it up with all the abandon befitting a team with one junior and three sophomores in the starting lineup. The Spartans came into the final four with no stars in their eyes. They pushed aside the underdog label and confidently predicted victory.
So they thought nothing of lifting each other up in celebration and anticipating a title even during tense moments in the fourth quarter.
“I’m almost speechless,” said Lakewood coach Necole Tunsil, who won the school’s first state title as a player with a virtuoso performance in the 1989 state final (44 points, 21 rebounds). “They tapped into their full potential. It’s just amazing.”
All season, the Spartans (25-4) were known as a fast-break team that could pile on the points with the best of them. But on Saturday, Lakewood ran into a team that was faster and could score more.
Pensacola had a penchant for playing drag strip basketball, averaging more than 60 points per game. So the Spartans decided to apply the brakes with their defense.
“Our defense has been underestimated all season,” Tunsil said. “We’re not that Phoenix Suns team that’s going to outscore everybody. We play defense and cause teams to play sloppy and create turnovers.”
Man-to-man defense is the meat of Lakewood’s program, with players held accountable on every possession. The Spartans crouch — sometimes so low they can slap their palms on the floor — as if defending against a threat more dangerous than an opponent with a basketball.
But after meeting in the hotel Friday night to discuss defensive strategy for the final, Lakewood decided to switch gears with a 3-2 matchup zone.
The zone has traditionally been regarded as a white-flag defense — a capitulation, an admission that the opponent is too athletic to be stopped with man-to-man.
A zone builds a wall to the basket against teams that have slashers, forcing them to shoot lower-percentage shots from long distance. It can also surround and stifle a gifted big man. And because the zone is less aggressive on the ball, teams can minimize foul trouble.
“We knew they had really fast guards and we’d have a hard time getting back on defense,” senior guard Kayla Roberts said. “We just had to go to a zone, play smart and communicate.”
Everything worked to perfection. The Tigers (23-3) looked puzzled. Passes were errant. Lanes were clogged. Shots were off.
Pensacola shot 20 percent for the game, including 0-for-7 from 3-point range. The Tigers were held under 50 points for the first time all season.
“It was a great defensive performance,” Davis said. “It was tough to get anything going offensively. I contribute a lot of that to the team we were playing.”
The bulk of Lakewood’s scoring came from sophomore Tianah Alvarado, who had a team-high 23 points and 13 rebounds. But unlike Friday’s semifinal, when Alvarado and older sister Taye’lor Trotter scored 45 of the team’s 48 points, the Spartans displayed more balance with five players who scored, including four with at least six points.
They also had a special formula for not panicking, even when Pensacola cut the score to 41-37 late in the fourth quarter. The Spartans simply bore down on defense — again — and made clutch free throws down the stretch.
“This may be a young team, but we have a very mature group,” Tunsil said.
In the end, though, they celebrated with all the exuberance they could muster.