Cotey column: With PCAC crown in hand, Lakewood ready for its closeup

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Fri. January 28, 2011 | John C. Cotey | Email

CLEARWATER — For years, the Pinellas County Athletic Conference championship has served as a launching pad for the best girls basketball team in the area.

Five of the past nine champions have ended up playing for the state title. Seven of the past nine champions have made it to the state semifinals in Lakeland.

So, the question now:

Are you ready for your turn, Lakewood?

The Spartans won their first PCAC title since 2001 Friday night, needing overtime to pull out a back-and-forth 49-48 slug fest at Clearwater.

It wasn’t pretty. The Spartans were forced to play at Clearwater’s pace, which is to say, slow.

They were great on the boards, but missed countless second and third shots. And poor free-throw shooting down the stretch nearly let the outmanned, smaller, slower, benchless but brilliantly coached Tornadoes in the game.

Heck, if the Tornadoes had known they were down three instead of two, they might have tried a 3-pointer to tie instead of sinking a meaningless layup at the buzzer.

But in the end, the Spartans won, and that counts for something. It counts for a lot.

“This game,” said Lakewood coach Necole Tunsil, “should set the tone for us heading into the playoffs.”

Despite their imperfections, the Spartans fought hard and showed great heart, and that made Tunsil happy.

Make no mistake, the Spartans are immensely talented. They have height, speed, even some outside shooters for a change. They play in-your-grill defense, and they crash the boards.

“I think we have all the pieces, and then some,” said Tunsil, who has spoken this confidently of her team before, only to suffer playoff disappointment.

They lost in the 2006 and ’07 PCAC final (to Largo and Clearwater, respectively), then advanced to the region finals and lost each time to …those same teams.

“This is our turn,” said senior guard Kayla Roberts, who had a terrible time of it from the free-throw line Friday, missing 5 of 7 in the final 94 seconds.

She beat herself up over it pretty good afterward, but Tunsil said she’s sure her phone will ring this morning, and it will be Roberts asking if she can let her in the gym, and together they’ll shoot 1,000 free throws to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

Tunsil has sophomore Tianah Alvarado, who scored 17 points, including the first six of overtime, and grabbed 11 rebounds.
Center Shineice Beamon grabbed a bunch of huge rebounds.

Roberts and fellow senior Taye’lor Trotter made getting to the basket wickedly difficult for Clearwater.

And the Spartans didn’t need a single point from Kasey Drayton, maybe the team’s second-best player.

“This team is different,” she said.

So when Clearwater tried to hand Tunsil her trophy and a cluster of medals, she demanded her team be introduced and her players recognized, because had the Tornadoes won, she said, there would have been a presentation.

She grabbed the mic and did it herself, announcing to the world that the Spartans have arrived.

“They earned it,” she said. “They deserve it.”

The Spartans, who didn’t lose to an area team all season, will win their district. They’ll probably win their first playoff game.
Then we’ll see if they have truly arrived when they meet up with Jefferson.

They’ll have to be better than they were Friday night. They won’t get away with being forced to play the other’s team game. They will have to make second shots and free throws.

Tunsil won’t look that far ahead, publicly anyway.

But she knows big expectations go with the team that wears the PCAC crown.

Are you ready for your turn, Lakewood?

“I would bet on us,” she said. “I would definitely bet on us.”

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