Lecanto sophomore Christine Plutta didn't put the game out of reach, but she put it out of Wildwood's range. With 11 seconds left in the Class 2A, District 9 girls basketball title game Saturday at Dunnellon High, Plutta made the first of two free throws, giving the Panthers (23-6) a 73-70 lead that stood up.
The Wildcats (13-7) had clawed their way back into contention late in the fourth quarter and had a shot with 11 seconds left, but three-point shooter Danielle Cobin was on the bench _ fouled out, along with three other Wildcats starters.
It made the Panthers' final strategy simple: Don't let the Wildcats' only remaining threat, Rhonda Allen, shoot the three-point basket.
"We knew they were going to go to her," Allan said. "I told them: "Whatever you do, don't let her shoot the three _ even if we have to foul her. We'll put her on the line."'
Two Panthers blanketed Allen when she got the ball, just outside the three-point line. She could not shoot but managed a perimeter pass to a teammate, whose three-point attempt was partially blocked by Tiffany Kellerman. The celebration began.
"I was thinking tonight that it would be great if one of the seniors or someone who doesn't play as much got the chance to step to the line and win it," Lecanto coach Ron Allan said.
The latter describes Plutta.
Plutta has scored 79 points this season _ a small number compared with the totals of other players on the team, which consistently scores in the 60s in games. Plutta was 16-of-31 from the free-throw line when she stepped up with 11 seconds left Saturday.
"I was thinking about what coach said: "Get it there,"' Plutta shouted over the ruckus. "When I let it go, I saw it was right in line with the basket, but I wondered if it was not hard enough. But when it rolls right off my fingers, I know it's going to go in."
She certainly had enough practice shooting free throws before the tournament began. Wednesday night, Plutta and coach Allan were in the gymnasium, shooting free throws for 220 minutes _ straight.
"It was for the Free Throw Shoot-a-thon," Allan said. "It's a fund-raiser for the school. She missed the day the rest of the team did it, three weeks ago, and the first chance we had to make it up was Wednesday night."
Tough fight in 3A-7: Before the Class 3A, District 7 tournament, observers said all nine teams had a shot to win the title.
The evenness of the field was no mirage. Seven of the eight games were decided by four points or fewer. Four of eight contests were decided in the final minute.
Defending 3A-7 champion Hernando suffered the worst loss, 58-37 to Zephyrhills on Thursday.
Three referees: The fans at Land O'Lakes were treated to a surprise Friday night: Three referees were used to officiate each of the two 3A-7 semifinal games.
According to one referee, 3A-7 is one of many districts assigned three refs by the Florida High School Activities Association. With three refs with whistles, the games averaged 28.5 fouls and 1 hour, 30 minutes in length.
Hernando was called for 24 fouls in its loss to Zephyrhills, and Citrus was whistled for 17 fouls per contest, more than any other team in the tournament.
Hudson's O'Connor sets record: Although Hudson was defeated by Citrus in a first-round game, Tara O'Connor was able reach a milestone.
In Hudson's 45-42 loss to Citrus, O'Connor, a senior, scored a game-high 27 points to set a team career mark with 512.
"With all the things that have happened to us this season, it's good that she did that," Hudson coach Linda McQuade said of O'Connor. "She really deserves it."
Can Ridgewood boys follow girls' lead? Now that has Ridgewood earned its first district girls basketball title, the pressure is on the boys team.
Ridgewood plays in the Class 3A, District 7 boys tournament this week at Saint Leo College. The Rams, the Gulf Coast Conference champions, will be the tournament's top seed.
"I think a couple of players on the boys team made bets with my wife (Marlyn Bavetta, girls assistant coach) on who'd win the most games," Ridgewood head girls coach Jim Bavetta said.
_ Staff writer Eric T. Pate contributed to this report.