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TAMPA — When the outcome was no longer in doubt, Freedom coach Laurie Pacholke started pulling her starters from the floor one by one.
She shared a long embrace with her daughter, senior guard Neena Pacholke. Faith Woodard joined them on the sideline, accompanied by the exuberant cheers of the crowd. Soon after, Taylor Emery virtually skipped over to the bench with a wide smile.
It was around then Freedom’s fans mockingly serenaded Steinbrenner with chants of “Warm up the bus! Warm up the bus!”
The Patriots celebrated long and loudly Friday night, a triumphant conclusion to their 63-45 victory over the Warriors to reclaim the Class 7A, District 9 tournament championship.
“If we won by 10 points, you wouldn’t have seen any celebration,” Laurie Pacholke said. “But I think the statement that we made here, beating them by almost 20, I think that’s where the jubilation came.”
Woodard had a game-high 29 points and Taylor Emery added 24 to lead the Patriots (22-2) to their second district title in three years, toppling last year’s champion.
The dominant duo — the 6-foot-3 Georgetown-bound senior and the explosive 5-9 sophomore — combined to score all of Freedom’s 48 points through the first three quarters. But it was their defensive intensity that helped put Steinbrenner in an early hole and sustained the Patriots when their offense was slowed.
Pacholke made a strategic shift from the two regular-season games (both Freedom wins), and had Emery leave the post to defend Steinbrenner’s primary ballhandler for much of the game. The move paid immediate dividends, as Freedom stormed out to a 12-3 lead and Steinbrenner committed seven turnovers during that stretch.
The Warriors (20-6) didn’t score their first field goal until junior guard Olivia Unger’s layup with 2:51 left in the quarter.
“That was a good strategic move on their part,” Steinbrenner coach J.R. Allen said. “For the first time this year, that was the first time anyone really pressed us. I’m surprised it took them the third game to do it.”
Steinbrenner eventually mounted a brief rally, closing to 26-20 after senior power forward Lauren Shedd scored on a putback with 1:38 left.
But the Warriors could neither match the firepower of Woodard and Emery nor solve their defensive pressure.
Freedom broke open the game in the third quarter with a 9-0 run, including a three-point play by Emery. That pushed the lead to 48-31.
From there, the ending was merely a formality and Freedom sensed it throughout much of the fourth quarter. When the horn sounded, the Patriots stormed the court, bounded up and down at midcourt — Pacholke even danced a little to the amusement of her team — and then posed for pictures.
“(The score) 63-45 says it all … I mean, it wasn’t a close game,” Woodard said. “Tonight we wanted to show everybody that nobody can stay with us.”
8A-7: Plant adjusts, puts away Newsome
TAMPA — Just about this time last year, Plant’s district title hopes came to a halt when the Panthers were upset in the semifinals by eventual champion Newsome.
Plant returned the favor beating Newsome 61-49 in the District 8A, Class 7 title game Friday night.
“Last year I felt like we peaked at the wrong time and Newsome beat us,” coach Carrie Mahon said. “But this year I really feel that we are playing our best basketball at the time when it matters most.”
Leading after the first quarter, Plant used a big run in the second to extend its lead to double digits. Reggine Brown got off to a hot start, scoring 11 first-half points. She led Plant with 18.
Newsome remained within striking distance thanks to hot shooting by Lauren Boerger and KK Smith. The duo combined for 25 first-half points to keep the Wolves within seven at halftime.
In the second half, with Plant’s leading scorer out with foul trouble and the Panthers struggling to defend Newsome’s top scorers, Mahon made a key defensive adjustment by going to a 1-3-1 halfcourt defense.
“When Reggine came out with foul trouble, I really had no one that we felt could guard them one-on-one,” Mahon said. “So at halftime we decided to try to go to the 1-3-1 to slow down the penetration and clog things up a bit. It seemed to work pretty well.
Plant held a comfortable lead heading into the fourth quarter. But much like in the first half, Newsome refused to go quietly, pulling within six a little more than midway through the fourth.
Sensing her team needed its leader back on the floor, Mahon subbed Brown back in. On Plant’s next possession, Brown hit a pullup jumper then found a teammate for another layup to push the lead back to double digits.
Mahon praised her team’s effort, not only in this game, but throughout the entire season.
“This is a real special group of girls,” she said. “They get along great and really love playing for one another. Our team only returned five players from last year so to see how hard this team has worked is great.”
7A-8: Preparation pays off for TBT
TAMPA — Tampa Bay Tech used a big second quarter and held off a late Riverview rally as the host Titans captured the 7A-8 district title Friday night 56-45.
“We were prepared for what they were going to go at us with,” TBT coach Reggie Lawrence said. “Preparation was the key tonight.”
It was the second consecutive district title for the Titans. TBT lost to Riverview on Dec. 7 before avenging that defeat later in the regular season and winning the rubber match Friday.
“We came in and played as a team,” said Erica Young, who scored 18 and pulled down a game-high 14 rebounds. “We knew we were going to win.”
Riverview’s press gave the Titans fits in the teams’ first meeting, but TBT had little trouble breaking it Friday.
“We did our homework,” said Young, who has signed with Kansas State. “We’ve been watching film during our lunch break and were ready for it.”
TBT (17-9) outscored Riverview 14-4 in the second quarter and led by as many as 15 points late in the third when Kirtisha Nelson hit a 3-pointer from deep in the left corner.
But Riverview (17-7) fought back in the fourth and trimmed the lead to 46-44 with about four minutes to play on a Shatisha Dukes 3-pointer. But the Titans kept their composure then put the game out of reach on a Nelson layup and jumper on back-to-back possessions with just more than two minutes to play.
TBT’s Shakela Smith (10 rebounds) matched Young’s point total of 18 while Nelson added 10. Asia Royster finished with a game-high 23 points for the Sharks.
“(Young) is a big-time player,” Lawrence said. “This team can go as deep (in the playoffs) as they want.”
6A-11: Sickles solid from long range
TAMPA — Sickles coach Mark Key said senior guard Cassidy O’Brien, his team’s leading scorer, had been off with her shot before Friday’s Class 6A, District 11 final against upstart Strawberry Crest.
O’Brien’s struggles continued in the first quarter against the Chargers.
Once she found her stroke in the second, however, she was nearly unguardable.
O’Brien connected on 6-of-9 tries behind the 3-point line and recorded a game-high 24 points to give Sickles the lift it needed in a 67-58 victory.
The Gryphons, district champ for the first time since 2010, were 9-of-18 from downtown.
“(O’Brien) kept knocking them down,” Strawberry Crest coach La’Tosha Lewis said. “That happens in the game of basketball; sometimes you hit them, sometimes you don’t. But the 3-point shooting was the difference in the game.”
The Chargers (19-7) start two freshmen and two sophomores but showed no nerves under the spotlight, opening up a 14-8 lead in the first quarter. The Gryphons (23-4) missed their first five 3-point attempts but finally connected in the second quarter when Sarah Hartman (12 points) hit a trey to give Sickles an 18-17 advantage.
That started the 3-point barrage. O’Brien and Kassidy Girdler hit on back-to-back possessions, and the Gryphons took a two-point lead into the break.
“Our defense really picked up in the second quarter,” O’Brien said. “And that sparked our offense.”
O’Brien hit a 3 right out of the break to put her team up five. She drained another midway through the third and Girdler was fouled on a 3-point attempt and made all three free throws to cap an 18-6 run that put the Gryphons up 14.
“I thought (O’Brien) hit a couple real big shots coming out of the half,” Key said.
Strawberry Crest answered with a 7-0 run but couldn’t get closer than seven the rest of the way.
“Youth set in with turnovers and things like that,” Lewis said.
Aliyah Gregory led the Chargers with 17 points while Maiya Trigg (16) and Terra Brooks (13) hit double figures.
5A-11: Robinson earns first title in 10 years
At Robinson, the Knights (15-6) got 14 points from senior Deliah Autry to capture their first district title in 10 years with a 29-24 victory over Blake. Le’Area Wilkerson had eight for Blake (12-15), which fell by 17 and 22 points to Robinson in the two regular-season meetings.
“We didn’t turn the ball over as much and were really more patient,” Blake coach Marlin Steward said.
4A-9: Tampa Catholic avenges losses
At Holy Names, the Crusaders (10-14) won their sixth district title in a row and avenged two regular-season losses Academy of the Holy Names with a 42-33 victory. The Jaguars went 7-for-23 from the free-throw line and didn’t fare much better elsewhere on offense.
“To put it bluntly, I just don’t think my girls were ready to play,” AHN coach Melissa Ganther said. “Coming from a coach, that’s not easy. … We flat-out didn’t handle their pressure and did not get the ball in the right players’ hands.”
3A-8: Seffner Christian untested
At Tampa Prep, eight of Seffner Christian’s 10 players scored as the Crusaders (25-2) won their third consecutive district title and fifth in seven years with a 63-13 victory over the Terrapins.
The entire second half was played with a running clock in accordance with the FHSAA’s mercy rule. Senior Tesha Hanson (14 points), junior Sabrina Whiting (13) and sophomore Peyton Walker (10) led SCA.
2A-8: Cambridge overwhelmed by state finalists
LAND O’LAKES — Academy at the Lakes won its third straight district title with Friday’s 75-15 rout of Cambridge Christian and Tatiana Manuel became the fifth player — and third girl — in school history to score 1,000 points.
AATL dominated with its press from the outset and had four players in double figures before emptying the bench. The Wildcats, state finalists last season, led 61-12 at halftime.
Staff writer Joey Knight and correspondents Mike McCollum, Brandon Wright, Bryan Burns and Steve Lee contributed to this report.