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Bucs make history

Gulf emerged from its dressing room and found a hallway flooded with fans.

The Buccaneers were greated with a roaring ovation.

Players smiled and danced through the crowd making their way to the charter bus home. Well-wishers couldn't resist slowing them with hugs and high-fives.

Everyone, it seemed, wanted to touch Gulf after its historic 57-34 Class 4A victory Tuesday at Ocala West Port.

The win lifts Gulf to the region final for the first time, its game at Orlando Bishop Moore billed to be the biggest in school history.

Gulf (29-1) came here looking for a formidable challenge to build confidence in its journey toward the final four. The Wolf Pack (25-4) provided a sound test.

"We needed it really bad," Gulf senior Tiara Cook said. "We wanted to see what the competition would be like as we went up the chart. We needed somebody to give us pressure, somebody to have an intensity level equal or above ours. It was perfect. "

The Wolf Pack starters had size, speed and the talent to match Gulf. Hannah Jones, standing at 6-foot-1, proved she could battle the lankier Cook, who admitted Jones was her toughest challenge of the season.

"I need to get in the weight room," Cook said. "She is good."

Gulf trailed just once all game and reclaimed the lead for good at 6-5 with 3:31 left in the first quarter on a Santana Lennon basket. The Bucs were led by Cook's game-high 18 points and Santana Lennon's 12.

Dominique English scored 14 in a homecoming of sorts. Many of Gulf's fans were here to support the Ocala native, including her mother, Monique.

The Wolf Pack looked lost without 3-point specialist Gabriel Austin. She sat most of the game with foul trouble. That allowed the Bucs to focus on interior defense.

They smothered West Port with pressure, forced tons of turnovers and turned them into plenty of fastbreak opportunities for a 27-15 halftime lead.

West Port managed a comeback late in the third quarter to cut the Bucs' lead to 37-32.

But Gulf put it away in the fourth, outscoring West Port 17-5.

"We knew they were going to make a run at us," Gulf coach Mike Quarto said. "You hold a team that's ranked eighth in the state to 37 points in the game, that's a hell of a job defensively."