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LAKELAND — From the opening tip Wednesday, Miami Country Day made clear that it was unlike almost any team Seffner Christian had faced in its nearly effortless run to the Class 3A semifinals.
The Spartans started with a fullcourt pressure defense, something few opponents had dared do against the Crusaders this season.
The strategy paid off: Seffner Christian fell behind early then spent the rest of the game trying to recover from its early foibles.
To no avail.
“I think the girls were a little rattled,” Crusaders coach Greg Fawbush acknowledged. “We hadn’t seen a press that aggressive.”
Finally matched against an opponent of equal — maybe even superior — talent, Seffner Christian again fell short in its quest for the school’s first state championship in a 60-51 defeat to Miami Country Day.
Sabrina Whiting scored a team-high 15 and Tesha Hanson had 14, the only Crusaders in double figures in their second loss in the semifinals in three years.
Whiting, Hanson and then Peyton Walker — the Crusaders’ top three scorers, responsible for 70 percent of the team’s offense — struggled with foul trouble and eventually fouled out.
“It was frustrating,” said Hanson, who surpassed 2,000 career points. “I just made some stupid, stupid, stupid fouls.”
It was another disappointing finish for Seffner Christian (28-3), which entered the Lakeland Center having defeated opponents by an average of 38 points. The Crusaders had won all but one of their past 13 games by more than 18.
But those lopsided victories meant little against Miami Country Day (29-1).
The Spartans, who have beaten opponents by an average score of 56-23, decided to test the skill and depth of Seffner Christian with a fullcourt press.
“We looked at their schedule,” Country Day coach Ochiel Swaby said, “and felt like no one had been able to put any pressure on them like that.”
True to Swaby’s word, Seffner Christian struggled mightily to solve the Spartans’ defense in the first quarter.
The Crusaders committed eight turnovers and shot 1-for-11, their only basket coming on a fastbreak layup by Hanson off a steal and assist from Whiting more than six minutes into the game.
Seffner Christian steadily worked its way back into the game, getting Spartans leading scorer Danielle Minott into early foul trouble then using their own press to make up the difference.
Whiting even gave the Crusaders their first lead with 3:20 left in the half, taking a steal all the way in for a layup to make the score 20-18.
It didn’t last.
After Walker was whistled for her fourth foul early in the third quarter, Onika Swaby scored six during an 11-3 run that gave Country Day a 45-33 lead.
Seffner Christian would get no closer than six points again, 57-51 with only 53 seconds left. But Hanson then committed two fouls in seven seconds, effectively ending their comeback hopes.
“The foul situation really affected us,” Fawbush said.
That, according to Ochiel Swaby, was all part of the plan.
“A lot of times when kids are getting tired, they start to foul out of frustration,” he said. “We knew the pressure would impact them.”