LAKELAND — Before Lakewood even stepped onto the Lakeland Center court for its Class 5A semifinal against Tallahassee Rickards on Friday morning, the team was oozing confidence. The Spartans did a quick online search and found the Raiders had 12 losses and lacked size.
And just after tip-off, their confidence only grew.
Guard Tianah Alvarado knocked down a 3-pointer in the opening seconds. Then she made a steal and hit another. Deja Swinton sank two free throws, then popped a 3 after another turnover.
Just about two minutes into the game, Lakewood led by 11. From there it was just a formality as the Spartans used their size underneath and shooting ability to defeat the Raiders 64-38.
Lakewood (24-6) faces Fort Lauderdale Dillard (27-4) at 10 a.m. Saturday for the championship. Dillard has won three straight titles — Dillard was in a different classification in 2011 when Lakewood also won — and rolled over Bartram Trail 62-25 in the semifinals.
“We looked at the roster and when you see 5-5, 5-4, those kind of numbers, it puts them at ease,” Lakewood coach Necole Tunsil said. “It made practices run a little smoother. We knew we needed to put a body on (6-foot center Shannon Owens), but for the most part we knew we could dominate the boards.”
Owens led Rickards (18-13) with 18 points, but she was the only bright spot for the Raiders. Alvarado led Lakewood with 20 points, but the Spartans spread out the scoring. Swinton had 11, Kyah Woody nine and Siyana Allen eight.
Lakewood outrebounded Rickards 55-35.
“If we get off to a bad start then we play mad,” Allen said. “But if we get off to a good start then we’re all (hyped up).”
With an 18-9 first-quarter lead, the Spartans scored the first seven points of the second quarter on an Alvarado three-point play, an Allen layup and another Alvarado basket. The half ended with two straight layups by Clemmiesha Flowers and Lakewood had a 31-18 lead.
Rickards never seriously threatened in the second half. Leading 41-25 midway through the third, the Spartans went on another 7-0 run to blow open the game.
“She put her bigs in to start the game and that caused a lot of trouble on the boards for us,” Rickards coach Chariya Davis said. “They started hot shooting and we were just kind of outmatched.”
Lakewood wasn’t spectacular shooting, hitting just 34 percent of its field goals. But Tunsil said her team looks much better than it did in the regular season.
“What you saw was a product of us jelling at the end of the season,” Tunsil said. “Lord knows it wasn’t at the beginning or the middle.
“We looked like the Bad News Bears during the regular season. I promise you. Some days we didn’t even know who was suiting up. But in the postseason, they’ve made the sacrifices.”
Last season, Lakewood lost 57-42 to Dillard in the state semifinals.
Lakewood senior guard Alexis Ungro is especially motivated to play Dillard. As a freshman at Boca Ciega she lost to Dillard in the state final.
“I felt like we should’ve won last year and I was disappointed in how I played,” Ungro said. “It’s not the first time that I’ve lost to (Dillard) so I want to beat them.”
Rodney Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RodneyHomeTeam.