LAKELAND — The shot sailed wide of the rim and Freedom’s boisterous contingent of fans could hardly wait to pounce on the rare miss.
“Airball! Airball! Airball!” they chanted, directing their taunts at Gainesville Buchholz’s unflappable gunner, Jessica Thomas.
Thomas cracked a smile, looked down at the floor and slowly shook her head. It was only more fuel for her fire.
“That just pumped me up even more,” Thomas said. “When they yell that it’s like, ‘I’m going to keep shooting. You’re not going to stop me from shooting.’ ”
Indeed. Freedom ultimately had about as much as success discouraging Thomas from shooting as its supporters Friday.
Thomas scored 38, including six 3-pointers, and her Buchholz teammates fed off her preposterous shooting display to end Freedom’s first appearance in the state tournament 79-73 in their Class 7A semifinal.
Georgetown-bound Faith Woodard led the Patriots with 26 points and 15 rebounds and sophomore star Taylor Emery added 21 points and eight rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Buchholz’s offensive onslaught at the Lakeland Center.
That onslaught started with Thomas, a 5-foot-7 Miami signee who is the (much) younger sister of former NFL veteran and Hurricanes wide receiver Lamar Thomas.
Much like those old swaggering champion Hurricanes, Thomas and the Bobcats moved with a speed and confidence that rattled Freedom in the opening minutes.
Thomas went 5-of-7 on 3-pointers in the first half en route to 25 points, putting Freedom’s defenders on their heels with a quick crossover dribble then effortlessly launching shots from well beyond the arc.
On Freedom’s bench, coach Laurie Pacholke took in Thomas’ performance and looked over her shoulder. There wasn’t much she — or they — could do about it.
“Dang, they’re on fire,” Pacholke told her assistants.
The Bobcats went into halftime with a 41-31 and later extended their lead to 58-39 late in the third quarter.
But the Patriots (25-4) rallied, forcing turnovers with their pressure defense and finally making some of the point-blank shots they had missed earlier.
Emery, who struggled with foul trouble in the first half, scored eight points during a 19-5 run that brought Freedom within 63-58 with 4:50 remaining.
Thomas darted around the 6-2 Woodard for a layup on the next possession but Woodard quickly responded with a basket that kept Buchholz’s lead at five.
The Patriots would never get any closer, as Bobcats freshman Chelsea Clark made eight straight free throws down the stretch to seal the victory. Buchholz (29-4) will face Davie Nova on Saturday in the 7A final.
After the game, Woodard and Whitney Ivey, two of Freedom’s three senior transfers, burst into tears recounting a trip to Lakeland born of grueling workouts and instant chemistry.
“I never thought I would ever get here,” Woodard said. “It was definitely something I’ll never forget.”
Said Ivey: “We fought so hard and worked so hard. I’m just happy to have had the chance to get here with this team.”
Pacholke, now 81-27 in four years at Freedom, predicted the Patriots would return with Emery leading the way for the program.
“Taylor is good enough to bring us back,” she said. “This helped put Freedom on the map.”