LUTZ — Wiregrass Ranch, down by as many as 10 points to Steinbrenner late in the third quarter, had come back in the fourth of the Class 7A, District 8 championship to make a game of it. But on perhaps the Bulls’ most important possessions of the night, their old problem reared its ugly head once again.
Wiregrass Ranch got behind early after committing nine turnovers in the first quarter alone, but curbed the miscues in the second half to close the gap. Twice the Bulls had the ball with less than a minute to go in the game, down by just two points.
Both times they were called for traveling before even getting a shot off, and Steinbrenner held on to win its second district title in three years, 44-42.
Steinbrenner (24-3) began the season — its fifth as a program — on a 12-game win streak before Wiregrass Ranch snapped it on Dec. 17 with a 49-41 victory on its home court. The Bulls were the only team in a tough district to hand Steinbrenner a loss.
In the biggest game of the season so far, Wiregrass Ranch (26-2) wasn’t as lucky.
“I’m proud of my girls for fighting, but we stunk in the first quarter and lost it there,” Wiregrass Ranch coach John Gant said. “We gave it away early.”
As the game progressed, Wiregrass Ranch, led by Logan Seoane’s 18 points, had players in foul trouble. Bulls playing out of position might have contributed to his opponents’ miscues, Steinbrenner coach JR Allen said. But whatever the reason, the Warriors took advantage of the extra help.
Having lost 58 percent of its scoring from last season, Steinbrenner had to adjust its philosophy to a more defensive one. Allen hasn’t shied from the fact that his team has often had trouble putting points on the board.
Friday, guard Taylor Thigpen proved that theory wrong.
Thigpen, who started alongside her sister Justice on the 2012 district championship team, was aggressive on defense, forcing a Wiregrass Ranch turnover with just more than a minute to go in a one-possession game.
She was equally as aggressive on her drives to the basket. Thigpen scored 21 of Steinbrenner’s 42 points.
“Maybe she’s taking it to heart that I say we don’t score very much,” Allen said. “She probably decided, ‘Hey I’m going to go out and show you I can score, Coach.’ And she did.”
Immediately following the school’s first district title in 2012, the Warriors’ short playoff run ended with a loss to St. Petersburg in the region quarterfinal. Steinbrenner, which hasn’t lost on its home court this season, will host Tampa Bay Tech in this year’s first round.
Thigpen promises this outcome will be different.
“We like to protect this house. It’s our court. We don’t lose here,” she said. “We’re going to keep that tradition.”