TAMPA — Somehow, Freedom survived one of its sloppiest 16-minute stretches of basketball and went into the locker room with a one-point lead.
Yet there was no need for a stirring halftime speech from coach Laurie Pacholke. She was never worried and she could sense her players weren’t, either.
The hard part, she said, was finally behind them.
“We knew Steinbrenner would have to have the game of their lives to beat us,” Pacholke said. “So I was comfortable knowing (my players) would eventually get sick and tired of letting Steinbrenner hang around.”
Faith Woodard scored a game-high 23, Taylor Emery added 18 and Freedom eventually pulled away from district nemesis Steinbrenner 60-43 in their Class 7A region semifinal Tuesday night.
The Patriots (25-3), who completed a four-game season sweep of the Warriors, will travel to Sebastian River (23-2) on Saturday afternoon for the right to go to Lakeland and the 7A final four.
This is Freedom’s first trip to the region final round since 2005, when it lost to Winter Haven in 4A.
The top-ranked Patriots had to endure some turbulence to get there, falling behind early and playing through foul trouble for Woodard and Emery.
Woodard picked up two fouls in less than a minute and Emery picked up her second foul with 20.8 seconds to go, with Steinbrenner already holding an 11-4 lead.
Pacholke decided to leave them in the game and Woodard rewarded her, er, faith by scoring Freedom’s first basket of the game with 10 seconds left in the quarter.
“I trust them to be smart,” Pacholke said. “And sometimes you’ve got to take the gamble. It paid off tonight.”
Emery, who averages 21 points, didn’t score until midway through the second quarter. And once she got started, the Patriots’ offense finally broke out of its slump.
Emery scored six and assisted on another basket during Freedom’s game-breaking 10-point run, turning a tie game into a 36-26 lead.
Freedom never led by fewer than eight the rest of the way.
The Patriots brought Steinbrenner’s season to a bitter close, handing the Warriors four of their seven losses this year. The Warriors, who won their first playoff game in program history last week, finished 21-7.
“We missed our opportunities,” Steinbrenner coach J.R. Allen said. “I don’t think we made them pay for” their bad start.
6A: Sickles sinks last-second jumper
TAMPA — Swept up in the euphoria of a last-shot playoff triumph, Sickles coach Mark Key joined a rush of gleeful Gryphons onto the court Tuesday night, inadvertently body checking 10-year-old son Jacob in the process.
“We do it at the house all the time,” the elder Key said. “He usually knocks me out.”
Setting off the spontaneity: 5-foot-5 junior Kassidy Girdler’s jumper from the left side of the perimeter with four seconds to play, lifting Sickles (25-4) to a 51-49 victory against Strawberry Crest (20-8) in the Class 6A region semifinals.
The victory, propelling Sickles into its third region final in four seasons, was its fourth of the year against the Chargers, containing more collective nip and tuck than the first three combined.
“Our kids refused to go home,” said Key, whose team had won the first three meetings by an average margin of 12.3 points.
The ninth of the game’s 10 lead changes occurred on Crest junior Aliyah Gregory’s traditional three-point play — she was fouled upon converting a midcourt turnover into a layup — with 1:23 to go. The play capped a 7-0 Crest run to give the Chargers a 47-46 lead.
Sickles senior guard Sarah Hartman responded by sinking three of four free throws on consecutive trips to the line, putting the hosts ahead 49-47 with 1:11 to play. The teams then traded possessions before Crest freshman Terra Brooks’ putback tied the score with 32 seconds to go.
After a timeout, Hartman (team-high 12 points) dribbled around the perimeter before finding Girdler, a long-range sharpshooter who had broken free on a curl to the left of the free-throw line.
“That’s the shot we kind of wanted,” Key said.
“It felt really good,” added Girdler, who had come off a screen for a 3-pointer earlier in the period to give Sickles a 46-40 lead. “I knew it was going in as soon as it left my hands.”
It was one of the few certainties on an otherwise suspenseful night.
“I’m not sure we played one of our better games, but you’ve got to give it to Crest. They gave everything they had,” Key said. “Coach (La’Tosha) Lewis did a great job with those kids tonight.”
3A: Second-half press gets job done for Seffner
SEFFNER — And the beat goes on.
Seffner Christian started slowly but locked things down defensively in the second half and cruised past visiting Lakeland McKeel 75-40 in the 3A region semifinals Tuesday night.
“We were a little slow out of the gate, and I knew our girls were looking ahead a little to Saturday night,” SCA coach Greg Fawbush said. “Then we got things going in the second half.”
It was the 12th straight win for the 27-2 Crusaders, who beat McKeel 69-39 Jan. 22. Seffner Christian, which extended its school record for wins in a season, reached the 70-point mark for the 10th time this year.
The Crusaders’ trio of Tesha Hanson (25), Peyton Walker (18) and Sabrina Whiting (12) reached double digits in scoring. But Fawbush said SCA’s second-half fullcourt press, which the Crusaders went away from during the regular season, was the difference Tuesday.
“We stopped pressing so much during the year because I felt we wouldn’t be able to do that if we got to the final four,” Fawbush said. “But I told them at halftime we were going back to it today and their eyes lit up.”
Tied at 12 in the first quarter, Whiting’s steal and uncontested layup gave the Crusaders the lead for good. An up-and-under from Walker with just more than three minutes left in the second quarter extended SCA’s lead to 10, its biggest of the first half, but the Crusaders took just an eight-point lead into halftime.
“We thought we were prepared and had the right mind-set from the onset, but obviously not,” said guard Ally Parimore, who had seven points. “We got a pretty good talking to.”
But the Crusaders’ press out of the break overwhelmed McKeel and SCA went on a 22-6 run to put the game away. Seffner Christian, which reached the region final last year, will host Florida Air on Saturday.
4A: Fouls trip up Tampa Catholic
One game after scoring a career-high 24, Tampa Catholic senior Danielle Battle followed it up with another one of her best offensive efforts.
But Battle’s 19 points weren’t nearly enough to keep the Crusaders alive in the Class 4A playoffs. Lake Placid defeated Tampa Catholic 63-39 in their region semifinal, putting a lopsided end to the Crusaders’ first season under head coach Matthew Rocha.
Rocha said three of his starters — Battle, Brittany Betts and Dominique Eule — each had three fouls before halftime, and two other contributors had two, dooming their chances of keeping up with the 4A-10 champion.
“The foul trouble kind of got us out of rhythm,” Rocha said. “Offensively, we didn’t execute at all. There was no flow.”
Betts, a senior bound for Rollins College, finished with 15 points. The rest of the team combined for four points.
Staff writer Joey Knight and correspondent Brandon Wright contributed to this report.