LUTZ — Wiregrass Ranch, down by as many as 10 points to Steinbrenner late in the third quarter, had come back in the fourth of the Class 7A, District 8 championship to make a game of it. But on perhaps the Bulls' most important possessions of the night, their old problem reared its ugly head once again.
Wiregrass Ranch got behind early after committing nine turnovers in the first quarter alone, but curbed the miscues in the second half to close the gap. Twice the Bulls had the ball with less than a minute to go in the game, down by just two points.
Both times they were called for traveling before even getting a shot off, and Steinbrenner held on to win its second district title in three years, 44-42.
Steinbrenner (24-3) began the season — its fifth as a program — on a 12-game win streak before Wiregrass Ranch snapped it on Dec. 17 with a 49-41 victory on its home court. The Bulls were the only team in a tough district to hand Steinbrenner a loss.
In the biggest game of the season so far, Wiregrass Ranch (26-2) wasn't as lucky.
As the game progressed, Wiregrass Ranch, led by Logan Seoane's 18 points, had players in foul trouble. Bulls playing out of position might have contributed to his opponents' miscues, Steinbrenner coach JR Allen said. But whatever the reason, the Warriors took advantage of the extra help.
Having lost 58 percent of its scoring from last season, Steinbrenner had to adjust its philosophy to a more defensive one. Allen hasn't shied from the fact that his team has often had trouble putting points on the board.
Friday, guard Taylor Thigpen proved that theory wrong.
Thigpen, who started alongside her sister Justice on the 2012 district championship team, was aggressive on defense, forcing a Wiregrass Ranch turnover with just more than a minute to go in a one-possession game.
She was equally as aggressive on her drives to the basket. Thigpen scored 21 of Steinbrenner's 42 points.
"Maybe she's taking it to heart that I say we don't score very much," Allen said. "She probably decided, 'Hey I'm going to go out and show you I can score, Coach.' And she did."
Immediately following the school's first district title in 2012, the Warriors' short playoff run ended with a loss to St. Petersburg in the region quarterfinal. Steinbrenner, which hasn't lost on its home court this season, will host Tampa Bay Tech in this year's first round.
Thigpen promises this outcome will be different.
"We like to protect this house. It's our court. We don't lose here," she said. "We're going to keep that tradition."
Class 8A-7: The bad news for Riverview was that point guard Asia Royster had to miss the final four minutes of the first half with three fouls and her team trailing by a point. The good news for the Sharks was that first-year coach Gerard Batista has been stressing defense in practice.
Using a suffocating man-to-man, Riverview went on a 21-5 run over the next 10 minutes and defeated Plant 50-37 Friday night for the Class 8A, District 7 championship at Bloomingdale.
Kierra Haywood scored 21 points and Royster added 12 — all in the second half — for Riverview (15-7). But defense was the catalyst as Plant (17-12) missed 46 of 59 shots (22 percent) and committed 19 turnovers. Only one Panther field goal was not a layup.
"We've worked really hard on playing the good man-to-man defense in practice all season," Batista said. "It's finally coming together. …That pressure helped give us the lead, and we were able to pull (Plant) out of the zone and go in and attack."
Riverview shot 48 percent and got 17 of its 21 field goals on layups. The first half featured nine lead changes, and the Sharks took the lead for good on Katelyn Giesey's 5-footer late in the second quarter.
"(Plant) definitely was not ready for our defense," Royster said. "Selina Guerad and Jazmine Washington both hustled and pushed it."
Deja Turner scored 10 for Plant.
Class 6A-9: Kiana King could not wait to get back into the lineup and it did not take long for the Armwood standout to make an impact. King scored 15 in leading the host Hawks to a 53-39 win over Hillsborough.
It is Armwood's first district title since 2006, while the Terriers (17-11) advance to the region round for the first time in five seasons.
"I'm back like I never left," said King, a senior guard and the Hawks' scoring leader who missed two weeks with a right shoulder injury, sustained while playing pickup basketball against boys.
Aside from King, who scores 13.8 points a game and this season surpassed 1,000 career points, the Hawks got 11 from Shawntelle Newsome.
Armwood (24-4) capped a 14-0 run in the district by winning two more district games as the 6A-9 tourney host. Coach Patrick Kelly was not shy about his team's chances to advance to the state final four.
"We can go all the way; we honestly believe it," he said. "We have the talent and as long as they show up to work it's going to be hard to beat us."
The Hawks led 30-9 at halftime and extended it to 50-19 before Kelly emptied his bench in the fourth quarter.
The Terriers outscored the Hawks 20-3 in the final quarter to make the outcome seem closer than it was. Hillsborough's Khoi Wilson scored a game-high 20.
Class 3A-7: Seffner Christian jumped to a 16-0 lead following the opening tip-off and never looked back on the way to a 73-14 victory over Carrollwood Day at Bishop McLaughlin.
"Our goal all year has been the same," Seffner Christian coach Greg Fawbush said. "This is just another step in the process (toward a state title)."
Seffner (22-5) had a clear road to its fourth straight district title. The team had outscored its district opponents by an average of 52 points in the regular season and didn't slow down come tournament time. After knocking off Bishop McLaughlin in the semifinals by 45, the Patriots (8-7) were slated as the next victims.
By halftime, three Crusaders were in double figures, including Peyton Walker (17 points, nine rebounds), Sabrina Whiting (17 points) and Sara Denny (17 points).
Whiting is only 19 points from the 2,000 mark in her career.
"It's just awesome to play with this group of girls," Whiting said. "We practice hard, and we do the best to make our practices way harder than our games so we are constantly focused."
While CDS will still be making its first trip to the state playoffs, the team's offense looked rattled thanks to the Seffner pressure, which notched 18 steals.
Times correspondents Don Jensen, Steve Lee and Derek J. Lariviere contributed to this report.