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CLEARWATER — The celebration, if it could be called that, was muted: some fist pumps and a few lazy high-fives on the court. Even in the locker room, the conversation was brief after a fire alarm forced everyone to evacuate the gymnasium.
Still, it was enough for the Tornadoes that they could comfortably exhale after escaping with a 42-39 victory over Freedom in the Class 7A region quarterfinals.
A sluggish start put Clearwater’s 16-season streak of winning in the quarterfinals in jeopardy. The threat was extinguished as the Tornadoes showed their fortitude by winning the rebounding battle, playing gritty defense and hitting clutch shots down the stretch.
“Freedom put us to the test,” Clearwater coach Tom Shaneyfelt said. “At this point of the season, you have to throw everything out the window and get ready for a battle.”
The Tornadoes (22-6) had trouble breaking away and managed a 23-20 lead at halftime.
In the second half, the Patriots (18-10) rallied by relying on its defense to create turnovers. Freedom chipped away at the deficit and led 34-33 early in the fourth quarter on Taylor Emery short jumper.
The Tornadoes stormed back after that, scoring six straight points to go ahead for good.
“We have to get the ball in the hole and for whatever reason we didn’t do that,” Freedom coach Laurie Pacholke said. “Clearwater is a good team and we stayed right there. We just can’t miss easy layups.”
One of the keys for Clearwater late in the game was its ability to stay away from critical fouls. Midway through the fourth quarter, Tyra Bolden and Javon McTier each picked up her fourth foul but both managed to not foul out.
McTier had a team-high 12 points, and Bolden and Alex Alford each had 11. Freedom was led by Emery (12 points) and Shade Williams (11).
“Once we settled into the game, I thought we played good defense,” Shaneyfelt said. “At this point, it doesn’t matter how you win, just as long as you get to the next round.”