TAMPA — Freedom coach Cedric Smith believed his team from a season ago was a bit more talented than the one that faced Brandon Thursday in a Class 7A region quarterfinal.
Smith’s current squad, however, is hungrier and has a chemistry that propelled the Patriots to a district title.
It also has Freedom’s first playoff victory in school history.
Behind a suffocating defense that confounded the Eagles all night, Freedom opened a first-quarter lead and pulled away in a 58-38 win.
“Our guys were upset last year after we lost in the district tournament. We thought we had a pretty good team,” Smith said. “… These guys really care about each other this year. I think that’s what’s different.”
Freedom (17-6) used a 9-2 run over the final three minutes of the first half to turn a three-point lead into a 29-19 advantage at the break. Senior guard Riley Blake hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer — Freedom’s only trey — to give the Patriots a momentum boost.
Freedom senior forward Daniel Thompson, a transfer from Key West, made three baskets in two minutes at the end of the third quarter to push the Patriots’ lead to 15.
Freedom held Brandon (15-13) to 15 points in the second and third quarters combined.
“Defense is key; that’s how we’re going to win these games,” said Thompson, who scored a game-high 16 points. “We play great team defense. We play together and help one another out.”
Brandon cut the deficit to 12 early in the fourth behind a 3-pointer from Roderick Davis (team-high 11 points) but wouldn’t get closer.
The Eagles committed 23 turnovers and struggled on offense.
“We preach defense every day, and I think our guys have been playing well the last three weeks as a unit,” Smith said. “They’re talking, they’re in the gaps and they try to make it hard for the other team. We don’t have really good man-to-man defenders, but when we guard as a group, we’re pretty tough.”
Miguel Rojas contributed 14 points and Sheldon Odunna had 12 for Freedom.