With freshman point guard Dominique English, Gulf was a team to be reckoned with, jumping out to a 6-2 start thanks to a full-throttle fastbreak offense.
Then she strained the meniscus in her right knee. Without her, the Buccaneers aren't quite as dangerous. They can't run the floor like they used to.
But they still can win.
Gulf defeated host Zephyrhills 43-34 in Thursday's Class 4A, District 10 contest.
The Bucs (12-6, 5-3) took control from the start, withstanding the Bulldogs' defensive pressure on the ball and in the paint to keep their dream season rolling without knowing when, or even if, the injured English will return.
"That forced them to grow up," first-year coach Mike Quarto said. "This is the same unit last year that went 2-19.
"For this team to be 12-6 is a tremendous credit to them and all the work they've done."
Defensively, Zephyrhills (4-14, 2-4) double-teamed Gulf center Tiara Cook, now the team's top weapon, throughout the contest to keep her out of the paint.
But the Bulldogs couldn't keep the 6-foot sophomore off the free-throw line. She made 5 of 6 during the fourth quarter and finished with a team-high 16 points.
"They played really good defense on Tiara, doubling down on her," Quarto said. "But we hit some key outside shots. We didn't shoot the ball as well as we would have liked.
"But any time you go out there on the road and get a win, you'll take it."
All the Bucs have been stepping up without English in their new grind-it-out halfcourt offensive sets.
Alicia Cross dropped three 3-pointers to finish with nine points, and Brandy Thomas scored six of her eight points during the third quarter to help overcome Zephyrhills' best runs.
The Bulldogs closed the lead to two early in the third thanks to an 8-2 run spurred by Santanna Lennon, Tyashia Black and Sherea Barker. They converted consecutive steals for layups.
Lennon led her team with 13 points. Black had nine and Barker six.
But Zephyrhills could not overcome first-half mistakes. There was a two-point second quarter and three fouls during the final 24 seconds of the quarter that put Gulf on the line each time.
Then the Bulldogs went scoreless during the last 4:53 of the game until Jessica Partain made a layup at the buzzer.
"Defensively, we put ourselves in a position to win," Zephyrhills coach Jerry Stacy said. "Offensively we shot ourselves in the foot in the first half. We missed a lot of opportunities, ruined a lot of turnovers with missed layups.
"But in the second half, I'm really proud of the way the kids battled."