INVERNESS — Land O'Lakes showed guts and determination Saturday night, coming back from 10 points down to defeat a tough Citrus squad 40-37 in the Class 5A region final to advance to Lakeland for their first state trip.
The Gators (23-4) did it by winning three consecutive road games.
Senior center Taylor McDonald (nine points, nine rebounds) and junior power forward Jhade Hayes (13 points, nine rebounds) led the Gators with timely offense and defensive production with a plethora of blocks. Hayes also fouled out in the fourth quarter.
"I'm just happy we got to state, and I know we were in for a tough night," Hayes said. "No one thought we would make it here. I'm happy."
Added McDonald: "Everyone kept doubting us, but it goes to show hard work beats talent any day."
With the score tied at 30 after three quarters, the Gators took the lead 32-30 early in a topsy-turvey fourth on a perfect assist from sophomore point guard Makala Canada (nine points, four steals) to Hayes for the bucket. Canada provided another great assist, finding junior guard Nicole Kraning for the basket for a 36-32 lead.
But Citrus (25-4) went on a 5-0 run to take the lead. Trailing 36-33, the 'Canes tied the score after Danielle Smith, who came off the bench, scored on a short basket and a free throw.
Citrus then took the lead on a Shally Morales (14 points) free throw with 27.6 seconds left, but the Gators dug deep and got the go-ahead score. Junior power forward Lela Gregory scored with about 10 seconds left, and the Gators then prevented a Citrus go-ahead attempt.
Canada was fouled and drained two free throws to put a stamp on the victory.
It wasn't easy from the get go, as Morales sank three 3s in the first quarter, which later led to a 19-9 'Canes lead with 5:10 to go in the second quarter. The Gators clawed back though, pulling to within five at 21-16 at the intermission giving them some needed momentum going into the second half.
"Citrus is a good team, and it was a dog fight," Gators coach Phyllis Crain said. "The refs let us play, and I'm very proud of my team and ecstatic for them."