Lakewood coach Necole Tunsil had a talk with her team during practice Monday at Eckerd College. She warned, in her own unique way, about Class 5A state semifinal opponent Fort Lauderdale Dillard.
“The odds are 20-1 against you,’’ Tunsil said. “That’s what people think, 20-1. Dillard doesn’t just want to come to Lakeland and beat you, they want to embarrass you. They want to blow you out.’’
For the record, there are no Las Vegas odds on high school sports. But Tunsil’s point is, if the Spartans don’t play a near-flawless game at 7:30 tonight at the Lakeland Center it could get ugly fast.
Dillard has won two straight state championships and six total. The Panthers have cruised through regionals thanks to a furious fullcourt defense and solid post play.
“Dillard is highly favored, to say the least,’’ Tunsil said. “We’re going to have to show some character. We’re going to have show that we’re not intimidated by their reputation.’’
Just a year ago Lakewood was doing the intimidating. The Spartans won the Class 4A state championship, the second in school history. This year looked just as promising, but things went south after Thanksgiving.
Junior guard Tianah Alvarado was lost to a season-ending knee injury. Senior center Shineice Beamon missed three games with an ankle injury. Junior guard Alexis Ungro kept landing in Tunsil’s doghouse and being suspended.
The result was humbling losses to Hollywood Christian (62-40), Miami Norland (42-25), Reynoldsburg, Ohio (54-27), Norland again (31-19) and Port Orange Atlantic (63-41) before district play.
Then there was a surprising loss to district foe Bradenton Southeast (43-42) and a 51-48 loss to Palm Harbor University in the regular-season finale. Lakewood is 20-10, its most losses in a season since Tunsil took over in 2004.
The Spartans were trying to figure out how to play without Alvarado. Frustrations boiled over after the loss to PHU.
“After that I had a feeling like I don’t want to lose anymore,’’ Beamon said. “Everyone on the team had the same feeling. We talked about how we didn’t want to lose, we’re going back to states and we’re going to win, no matter what anybody says. That’s the mentality that we have right now.
“We aren’t the same team as we were (at Christmas break). We were struggling, trying to figure out what we were going to do. But now we’ve got everybody kicking and flowing. We’re a better team.’’
The loss of Alvarado meant role changes. Junior guard/forward Kasey Drayton went from distributor to scorer. She averages just more than 19 points. Beamon added scoring to her role as a rebounder/defender. When Ungro isn’t suspended, she’s the main ball-handler. And senior guard Jacquette Green had to step up her point production as well.
“We grew as a team,’’ Ungro said. “We trust each other more now. Those games made us better. It gave us the toughness to play teams like that better the next time.’’
The Spartans haven’t lost since that final regular-season game. Including last year, Lakewood has won eight straight region and state final games.
Also, Lakewood is as healthy and confident as it has been at any point during the season. That may not matter against Dillard, but there are no excuses.
“Everyone underestimated us since we lost Alvarado,’’ Green said. “Nobody thought we could get back to states and win. We want to prove everybody wrong.’’