LUTZ — Steinbrenner coach J.R. Allen will be the first to point out his team’s greatest weakness.
“We don’t shoot the ball real well,” he said. “That’s no secret.”
But with a 42-31 Class 7A, District 8 semifinal victory against Sickles on Wednesday, the Warriors proved again that a strong offensive presence isn’t a requirement to come out on top.
Steinbrenner (23-3) will play Wiregrass Ranch (26-2) in the final at 7 p.m. Friday. The Bulls knocked Freedom out of contention 49-46 in the other semifinal Wednesday.
Sickles (20-7) came in riding a four-game winning streak, including victories against tough Strawberry Crest and Tampa Bay Tech teams. The Gryphons and Warriors stayed close in the first half, with Steinbrenner going into the break ahead 19-15.
In the third quarter, however, Steinbrenner leaned on the strength that got it there in the first place: its suffocating defense. Sickles scored just two points in the third quarter; Dessi Rembert had the Gryphons’ only basket.
“It’s the most amazing feeling when you’re in a game and you do something you’ve been working on for weeks in practice, and it just works so perfectly,” junior forward Rachel Briere said about her team’s defensive strategy.
Sickles guard Kassidy Girdler, who finished the season with 52 3-pointers, made a pair of baskets from long range in the fourth quarter to try to get the Gryphons back in the game, but it was to no avail. Girdler led Sickles with 11 points, while Taylor Thigpen scored a team-high 12 for Steinbrenner.
The victory against Sickles propelled the Warriors to their third region berth in five years in existence as a program and a third straight district championship game appearance. Steinbrenner won a district title in 2012 but lost to Freedom in the title game last season.
Steinbrenner’s Briere admitted it would have been nice to try to avenge last year’s loss against the Patriots on Friday.
Watching a strong Freedom (19-6) team miss the postseason made Allen even more grateful for excelling in a tough district.
“I consider it an honor,” he said. “You look at how good (Freedom) is, and the fact that they’re not even going to the state playoffs, it’s crazy.”
Steinbrenner could have its work cut out for it Friday against the Bulls. The Warriors’ only district loss in the regular season came against Wiregrass Ranch, 49-41. The Bulls’ 49 points are the most scored against Steinbrenner this season.
Though the Warriors’ next opponent came close, no team has put up 50. A statistic Allen plans on preserving. “It’s just a testament. Whatever we’re doing defensively, it’s working,” he said.