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TAMPA — Taylor Emery got whistled for her third foul late in the second quarter. Faith Woodard found herself benched late in the game after a couple of listless trips up the floor.
And Freedom coach Laurie Pacholke was even forced to use timeouts under duress for the first time all season.
As expected, the Patriots got their first test of the year against Steinbrenner on Thursday night in the eagerly awaited showdown of unbeaten teams.
They passed but not without sweating it out a bit.
Woodard scored a game-high 22 and Emery added 14 despite foul trouble to send Freedom to a 44-37 victory over the Warriors for the early lead in Class 7A-9.
“I love that we’ve now been pushed,” Pacholke said. “I’m glad that we had this game.”
Freedom (10-0, 4-0) pulled out the win for its third victory in as many nights, a grueling stretch that included a game Wednesday 25 miles away in Newsome that didn’t start until 9:30 p.m.
But the Patriots still jumped out to a 22-8 lead midway through the second quarter, with Woodard and Emery scoring all of the points and exciting their raucous home crowd.
It was around then Steinbrenner (11-1, 3-1) slowed the pace and frustrated the Patriots, who had won their previous nine games by an average of 38 points.
Led by 5-foot-11 sophomore Rachel Briere, the Warriors fought back and closed the gap to 27-23 with 4:55 left in the third quarter.
“It took a while for us to figure (ourselves) out,” Steinbrenner coach JR Allen said. “My team almost got a chance to do something special.”
The Warriors were helped in their comeback by drawing a third foul on Emery late in the second quarter. Freedom was leading 25-15 when Emery left the game; the Patriots’ lead dwindled to four when she returned midway through the third quarter.
Woodard had to shoulder most of the offensive burden, battling against Briere and Steinbrenner senior star Bailey Hooker.
Woodard was up to the challenge, even scoring on a nice spin move to the basket that gave the Patriots a 38-27 lead early in the fourth quarter.
“That’s why she’s going to Georgetown,” Allen said of Woodard.
However, Pacholke got frustrated with Woodard after a couple of sloppy possessions late in the game and sent her to the bench.
“It was a good challenge for us,” Woodard said. “We definitely got a little frustrated, but we held our composure and pulled it out.”
Allen predicted this would be the first of four potential games between the district leaders, looking ahead to their rematch Jan. 18, a possible game in the district finals then possibly in the playoffs.
“I feel like we’ll see each other a bunch,” Allen said.
Briere finished with a team-high 16 points and Hooker, who averages 18.4 points, was held to a season-low four.