MORE from our HomeTeam writers.
LAKELAND – In order to beat Fort Lauderdale Dillard in Saturday’s Class 5A state final, Lakewood coach Necole Tunsil said her team didn’t have to be perfect. The Spartans just needed to be close to perfect.
Unfortunately, they were far from perfect.
Lakewood committed 29 turnovers, gave up 19 offensive rebounds and lost 57-41 at the Lakeland Center. It is the second straight season Dillard has beaten Lakewood in the state tournament. Last year the Panthers won 57-42 in the semifinals.
This is the fourth straight state championship for Dillard (28-2). Lakewood (24-7) was seeking its second state title in three years.
“We had to minimize our mistakes,’’ Tunsil said. “We didn’t have to be perfect. We did some very good things. We caught them off guard for a little bit. We put up a strong fight and then we let it slip away. That was due to turnovers.’’
Lakewood did indeed come out strong against Dillard. Tianah Alvarado, who was named Lakewood’s most valuable player for the tournament, made her first 3-point attempt to answer an Eva Myers 3 to start the game.
Alexis Ungro also made a 3, Alvarado made a layup, then hit another 3 to give the Spartans an 11-7 lead. Then the Panthers kicked their full-court press into high gear.
Lakewood started throwing errant passes and Dillard turned them into points. By the end of the first quarter, Dillard led 16-14, caused eight turnovers and never trailed again.
The Spartans were held to just eight points in the second quarter while Panthers forward Kayla Wright went to work under the basket. She scored two layups and hit two free throws in the quarter to help Dillard build a 31-22 halftime lead.
“We didn’t want them to get comfortable,’’ said Dillard coach Marcia Pinder, who has won eight state titles in 36 years at the school.
“We have so many different presses. We wanted to keep showing them something different. We started with a press and then dropped back. Then after halftime we went back to the press. It kept them off balance.’’
It also didn’t help when Alvarado picked up her second foul in the first quarter. She had to sit for about half of the second quarter, which forced Lakewood to use different players to break the press.
“When Tianah got into foul trouble they came with the press,’’ Tunsil said. “Some of our younger players got shook a little bit. They didn’t have that leadership on the floor.’’
Sophomore guard Deja Swinton said it was just a matter of trying to stay calm.
“(The press) wasn’t difficult to break, it’s just that we went at their pace instead of slowing it down,’’ she said. “That was the biggest difference.’’
Alvarado returned in the third quarter and the Spartans made a run. After falling behind 38-24, Aliyah Frazer made a layup, Alvarado followed with another layup and Ungro drilled a 3 to make it 38-31. But a pair of turnovers led to four Panther points and Dillard was able to survive the run.
By midway through the fourth, the Panthers built a 48-34 lead and Lakewood was forced to extend its defense and start fouling. The Spartans were called for two intentional fouls late. One was on Ungro, who fouled out of the game with eight points and four assists.
Ungro has lost to Dillard at the state tournament three of her four years (once with Boca Ciega, two with Lakewood).
“I’m not disappointed,’’ Ungro said. “I was disappointed last year. This year we played hard. We didn’t give up. Dillard is a good team. They really did deserve it. I can live with this.’’
Aside from the turnovers, the Spartans were also done in by a lack of defensive rebounding. Dillard got several second-chance shots.
“It’s been one of our weaknesses that hasn’t been totally exposed,’’ Tunsil said. “It was exposed today. We actually had someone in front of us that was as big and talented. We didn’t do the small things. It’s been a weakness of ours for a long time.’’
Aside from Alvarado, Frazer was a surprise scorer underneath for Lakewood with nine points. Dillard’s Eva Myers, who was named her team’s MVP, led all scorers with 19 points and nine rebounds. Wright added 15 points.