LUTZ — It’s perhaps the best girls basketball district in the state, Wiregrass Ranch coach John Gant surmised, so it was only fitting that the Class 7A, District 8 semifinal between his Bulls and Freedom came down to one final shot.
Wiregrass Ranch led after the first three quarters and had as much as a 12-point advantage in the fourth. Slowly but surely, though, fouls and Bulls turnovers allowed the Patriots to creep back in.
Down by three with less than four seconds to play, Freedom had time for just one more shot. Gant had spent the whole game instructing his players to keep the ball away from Freedom standout Taylor Emery, and the last possession was no exception.
“All I wanted to do was deny Emery and Nari (Garner) the 3-pointer,” he said, “and we got it in the right hands.”
With Freedom’s best two 3-point shooters successfully guarded, the Patriots missed their final chance at a tying score and advancing to the playoffs, and Wiregrass Ranch escaped with a 49-46 win and its third region berth in program history.
The Bulls (26-2) face Steinbrenner in Friday’s district championship. The Warriors beat Sickles 42-31 in the second semifinal.
Wednesday marked the third time the Bulls and Patriots met this season. Wiregrass Ranch beat Freedom 70-58 in December, but the Patriots (19-6) came back with a vengeance to beat the Bulls by 17 points on their home court Jan. 8.
It had been three weeks, but that drubbing hadn’t left the Bulls’ minds. Gant wouldn’t dare let it.
“A lot of coaches would say, ‘Lets forget that one,’ ” Gant said. “I told them point blank, ‘We will remember this, and we will come back and play again.’ ”
Wiregrass Ranch led from the start and spread the ball around — Beliz Esen had 10 points, Trakyra Kidd had nine, and Amanda Melosky and Logan Seoane each finished with eight. But the key to Wiregrass Ranch’s strategy was taking Emery out of the game.
Emery came into the semifinal averaging nearly 26 points per game. But the Bulls had a job to do, and for the first three quarters, they did it well. Emery, who finished with 19, had just 11 points going into the fourth.
“Stopping her was kind of stopping a lot of their offense, because they run through her,” Esen said. “We made it our mindset: to stop her, you stop the entire team.”
With a playoff berth on the line, Emery stepped up in the final quarter. She was aggressive in her drives to the basket, and she was fouled five times in a minute-and-a-half span late in the game. The Patriots, however, missed 10 free throws in the fourth quarter.
With a furrowed brow and a piercing tone to match, Gant paced up and down the court most of the game. It was only natural the third-year coach of the Bulls appeared to have a huge weight off his shoulders after his team slipped by.
It wasn’t exactly luck; the Bulls had strategized and worked hard for that outcome. But, Gant admitted, they were privileged to still be alive.
“Escape is the word,” he said. “To get a win and be the top two in this district is huge.”