TAMPA — Lakewood girls basketball coach Necole Tunsil could look at the celebration on the opposing bench Tuesday night and smile.
Next year, that's her team, she said. The Spartans' season ended in the Class 4A region semifinals. Lakewood fell to an experienced Dragons team that wasted little time turning a playoff game into a mismatch.
Lakewood's 66-46 loss stung, especially after the Spartans had to play catch-up all night after an 18-4 first-quarter Jefferson run. But to Tunsil, who will return four of her top six players next season, it was a night to remember.
"Those that come into the Spartan Arena next year will see a totally different, more mature team," she said. "We're going to turn a bunch of heads. I'll go ahead and put it out there early on. The feeling my players felt today, they won't feel next year."
Jefferson advanced to its second straight region final, with all five starters from last year's team returning. The Jefferson band was in the stands, making the bleachers rattle, and the road gymnasium swallowed up the young Spartans quickly.
In the first quarter, Lakewood went 7:20 without scoring, shooting 2-of-12 from the field and committing four turnovers.
"I give them a lot of credit for coming out and taking it to us right away. We have a young team," Tunsil said. "We were missing layups and close shots. It was like there was a lid on the basket. We couldn't find a shot to go down."
After Jefferson (27-3) opened the lead to as many as 21, Lakewood (21-6) closed the gap to 12 on Tianah Alvarado's 3-pointer with 2:40, but Laurie' Beaty (eight points) hit the second of back-to-back 3-pointers to end the threat.
"I'm not really sure all of the players on the floor understood the magnitude of the game," Tunsil said. "When you have inexperienced players like that and you're going against Jefferson, which has been to regional finals, it kind of took my babies by surprise."
Alvarado, a freshman, led the Spartans with 13 points, while junior Taye'lor Trotter added 10 and Latesha Johnson had nine.