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Opportunity, victory pass Lakewood by


Lakewood center Brian Ligon blocked shots, tipped in misses, relentlessly rebounded, made jump shots and was a brute down low.

The only thing he didn't do Saturday night was play the point, and just maybe that was too bad.

The defending state champion Spartans masked their biggest weakness _ lack of a point guard _ by sending waves of defenders at opponents this season, but that strategy came up just short in the Class 4A, Region 3 final at Jack Deedrick Gymnasium, as Winter Haven pulled out a 72-70 win to advance to the state final four.

With seven seconds left and a chance to ice the game, Winter Haven's George Hardy missed two free throws. Ligon grabbed the second miss _ his 11th rebound of the game _ and quickly got it to freshman Dion Burton. But Burton got pinned on the sideline trying to rush the ball up court, and the ball was knocked away and the clock expired before Lakewood could get off a shot.

"We had our opportunities and we came up short," Lakewood coach Dan Wright said.

Oh, did they have their opportunities. Before Hardy missed his free throws, Ligon came up with a steal as he flew out of bounds. His attempt to throw the ball off Hardy _ Lakewood was out of timeouts _ was caught by the Winter Haven guard who was then fouled.

And before that, the Spartans shot just 1-for-6 from the free-throw line in the final 56 seconds, failed to take advantage of equally bad free-throw shooting by Winter Haven, and had ball-handler Sean Morrison foul out.

For once, Lakewood (26-6) ran into its mirror image as the Blue Devils (24-6) were able to harass it into a series of costly turnovers, particularly in a two-minute span late in the game when the Spartans failed to advance past halfcourt on three straight possessions.

Winter Haven turned that into eight straight points and a 70-65 lead.

"They didn't have to go far to score," Wright said.

"We played (Lakeland) Kathleen and had only six turnovers the whole game; they played them and had 23," Winter Haven coach Don Grant said.

"I knew they couldn't stand the pressure."

The Spartans had 27 turnovers. Winter Haven, however, had 25.

Ligon finished with 25 points, including 17 in the second half. It was an impressive performance considering he did not play the final 10 minutes of the first half because of foul trouble.

Morrison sat out the same time and scored just five points.

With their two best players out, Lakewood fell behind before Mario Tellfair, Coryon Ross and Burton all managed baskets to make it 32-32 at halftime.