Jennifer Hillard scored 23 points and Angie Robinson added 20 as Lakeland rolled past Gaither 64-44 for the Class 4A, Region III title Tuesday night. Lakeland (26-7) will play the winner of the Sarasota Riverview-Pinellas Park game for the 4A, Section II title. Gaither ends its season at 10-12.
"We felt like we could play man-to-man (defense), but we got too close and got some fouls," Lakeland coach Greg Glenn said. "We've got to keep getting better. We've got to play better than that against either Riverview or Pinellas Park."
Lakeland never trailed in the game. Robinson hit back-to-back jump shots to give the Lady Naughts a 4-0 lead. Gaither cut the lead to 6-4 with 4:25 left in the quarter on baskets by Jenni Boggs, who finished with 10 points, and Melinda Grant (seven points).
Gaither would not score again for the next 5 minutes 45 seconds. The Cowboys' problems were compounded by two quick fouls on center Carlyn Esslinger. Esslinger picked up her second foul with 7:19 left in the quarter. She came out at that point and didn't re-enter the game until the start of the second quarter. By that time, Lakeland held a 15-4 lead.
Esslinger was again relegated to the bench after picking up her third personal foul with 7:26 left in the second quarter. She returned in the second half to score all of her team-high 16 points.
"(Esslinger) played a whole 75 seconds in the first half or it may have been different," Gaither coach Leo Haggerty said. "I don't know though. They've got a better team. Their players are physically bigger than us and fundamentally sounder."
Lakeland also had Robinson. Besides her scoring, the senior guard is adept at driving the lane and dishing off. And when the Lady Naughts needed points, she was there to provide them.
Robinson scored eight of her 12 first-half points in the opening period. She scored eight more in the third quarter as Lakeland outscored the Cowboys 18-6 and opened a 51-23 lead.
"If there is a better player, I haven't seen her," Haggerty said. "What hurt us was, we couldn't match up with Robinson."