SEBASTIAN — Freedom’s Faith Woodard played a strong game through 47-plus minutes Saturday night, but it was her performance in the final minute of regulation that lifted the Patriots to their biggest win to date.
Woodard scored the go-ahead basket on a layup with 13 seconds to go, then snared a rebound 10 seconds later as Freedom clinched a Class 7A region championship in a thrilling 74-73 victory over defending state champion Sebastian River.
A monumental blunder and a pair of missed field goals by Sebastian River set the stage for Woodard’s heroics that will send the Patriots to Lakeland for the state final four for the first time.
Trailing 73-72 with 45 seconds to play and without the ball after Taylor Emery’s two free throws, Freedom (25-3) watched the Sharks’ Tayler Smith take an ill-advised 15-foot jumper with 25 seconds remaining.
Twelve seconds later Monet Wiliams’ cross-court pass from the left wing found Woodard, who banked in the short shot for a 74-73 lead. Smith missed another shot, a wide-open reverse layup, that would have put the Sharks up again in the closing seconds.
Woodard missed the front-end of a one-and-one, but Sebastian River’s last-ditch full-court shot didn’t make it to half court.
“That was, by far, the most nerve-racking (time) and something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. My heart stopped,” said Woodard, who finished with a team-high 25 points.
“I just knew we were down and I had to get it done for my team. I lost in the regional finals in my sophomore year. I was not going to go out quietly.”
Added Williams, who scored all six of her points driving the lane in the fourth: “I didn’t realize the time or anything. I knew we just had to get it up.”
Freedom led for most of the game and by as many as 14 when Woodard’s layup in the first three minutes of the second half put the Patriots up 50-36, silencing the home crowd.
Sebastian River (23-3) chipped away behind K.P. Pound, who scored a game-best 33 points. Freedom coach Laurie Pacholke knew the defending champs had a run in them.
“I told them (Sebastian River) would come out swinging in the second half,” the fourth-year coach said. “They’ve been in this position before, but I knew we would fight.
“I asked my team, ‘Do you want your season to end tonight?’ We’ve got six seniors on this team, and we weren’t going to quit.”
Emery scored 19 for Freedom while Whitney Ivy added 15.
6A: Sickles fight hard, but falls to Winter Haven
TAMPA — Cassidy O’Brien scored her first basket of the game three minutes into the second half, a 3-pointer from the right corner. Then she hit another one.
Kassidy Girdler soon sandwiched a couple 3s around one from Sarah Hartman, a barrage of treys that quickly turned a blowout into a game within striking distance for Sickles.
But the Gryphons’ offensive onslaught simply couldn’t overcome the one by Winter Haven’s Cynkeria Mobley.
Sickles rallied from an early 15-point deficit to pull within three in the fourth quarter, but Mobley scored 35 points — 16 in the third quarter — and Winter Haven held on down the stretch for a 57-50 victory in their Class 6A region final Saturday.
“I’ve never seen anybody finish like her,” Sickles coach Mark Key said of Mobley. “She’s a great player. She made some shots that we never thought she would make. She made some shots that were unreal.”
The Gryphons (25-5) fell short in their bid to return to the state tournament for the first time since 2011, when they lost to Winter Haven in the semifinals.
In recent years, Sickles built title-contending teams around dominant stars like Amber Henson and Bre Crum.
This season, the Gryphons made it to their third region final in four years with an ensemble cast. Key called this team his deepest in recent memory, featuring shooters like O’Brien and Girdler, physical post players like Daisha Whiten and Jana Henson and steady guards like Sarah Hartman and Cierra Wheatley.
Sickles came into the region final on an 11-game win streak, a deeper roster and homecourt advantage. Saturday, however, the Gryphons got a reminder of what it was like to have an unstoppable star.
Mobley, a 5-foot-8 senior guard, answered almost every offensive spurt by Sickles in the third quarter. She scored on all but one possession immediately following a Gryphons’ basket in the period, including a 3-pointer with 2:12 left that gave Winter Haven a 40-32 lead.
When O’Brien hit a jumper that pulled Sickles within 42-39 with 6:19 left to play, Mobley responded with a spinning lay-up on the next trip down the floor.
The Gryphons never got closer than five points again.
“She told me that she wasn’t going to let us lose,” Winter Haven coach Johnnie Lawson said. “There’s nothing she can’t do out there.”
Sickles, which fell behind 13-0 and later trailed 19-4, simply couldn’t overcome its frigid start.
“We came out and we couldn’t hit anything,” Key said. “But we went out with a fight. We gave it everything we had.”
O’Brien led Sickles with 16 points, and Girdler added 15.
Joel Anderson, Times staff writer
3A: Seffner Christian reaches goal
SEFFNER — If you thought Sabrina Whiting was a bundle of energy in the Class 3A region final Saturday night, you should have seen her earlier at home. And by the end of the game, she had coach Greg Fawbush saying, “Mission accomplished.”
Whiting, a junior guard, was the fuel for Seffner Christian, which shot down Melbourne Florida Air Academy 79-51 and earned its second trip to the state tournament in three years. The Crusaders (28-2) will play Wednesday at Lakeland against Miami Country Day, a 50-48 winner over Weston Sagemont.
Tesha Hanson (21), Peyton Walker (18) and Whiting (20) combined for 59 points. Trailing 17-13 late in the first quarter, the Crusaders took the lead for good with a 14-2 run as Florida Air (19-4) missed nine of its next 10 shots.
The Falcons’ only challenge after that came early in the third quarter when they pulled within 40-33. But Seffner Christian answered with a 15-2 burst.
Whiting scored 15 points in the first half, including treys to end both quarters.
“Before (game time), I was just like crazy, going around the house running around so excited,” she said. “My dad was always energetic when he played and I think that’s where I got it from.”
Fawbush was proud of his team.
“To go out and execute the way we did was pretty special,” he said. “(Florida Air) shoots the 3s a lot. We just took that away and let our offense work. We can score anytime we want. Mission accomplished — (getting to state) was our goal from Day 1.”
Don Jensen, Times correspondent