LAKELAND - Freedom's drive toward a state appearance hit a major pothole Tuesday night. Namely, a torrid Lake Gibson offense and an opportunistic defense that shocked the Patriots in a 82-65 rout in the semifinals.
Arguably Hillsborough County's best team the past two seasons, Freedom had no answer for Lake Gibson sophomore forward Andrea Smith, who torched the normally defensive-minded Patriots for 43 points. Smith scored 12 in the decisive third quarter when things turned ugly for Freedom, who fell victim to a 18-9 Lake Gibson run.
Freedom, suffering just its fourth loss in the past two years, ends its best campaign in school history at 27-2. Lake Gibson (21-8) advances to the region final and is a win from the state final four.
"We really thought we'd have a better performance than this," Freedom coach Nancy Kroll said. "We just didn't finish. Home court means everything and (Lake Gibson) played well. But we just didn't finish. It makes it hard to play well when you don't finish well."
The Patriots did start well.
Freedom grabbed a 9-2 advantage and stretched it to 18-8 early. But the up-tempo, quick-moving Braves chipped away at the lead and put together runs in the second (9-0) and in the third (13-4) quarters to first grab Freedom's momentum, then take over the game.
Down by two at the half, Freedom soon found itself trailing by 10 and managed just two points during the last three minutes of the third. Meanwhile, the Patriots could not stop Smith, who scored at will late in the contest, setting a school record for points in a game.
The Braves also had solid play from Jennifer Peachee (16 points) and Euneshia Proctor (12 points). Freedom was led by Whitney Jennings, who nailed four 3-pointers while totaling 20 points. Tandra Faulkner added 18 points for the Patriots and Briana Nelson scored 16.
Early deficit downs Hawks
WINTER HAVEN - Armwood coach Jeff Pafunda figured his team would need to start out strong to have a chance against No. 1-ranked Winter Haven.
The Blue Devils' full-court press, however, never allowed that to happen.
Winter Haven forced Armwood into nine first-quarter turnovers and took the Hawks out of their offensive rhythm.
Meanwhile, Winter Haven sophomore forward Tiffany Hayes went off for 18 of her game-high 27 points in the first half, helping the Blue Devils jump to a 20-point halftime advantage that Armwood could never recover from.
Winter Haven rolled to a 64-41 victory and advances to the region final to play Lake Gibson on Saturday.
"I knew the pressure was going to come, and I knew there would be a bunch of turnovers," Pafunda said. "We kind of expected (the press), but you really can't practice for it."
Winter Haven (30-1) led 19-13 after the first quarter, with Hayes chipping in 12 of those. The Blue Devils forced eight more turnovers in the second quarter and went on a late 11-2 run to go into halftime up 45-25.
"We wanted to hang tight with Winter Haven and see how they would react if we stayed in the game," Pafunda said. "They did a good job, though, and stayed up on us."
Any thoughts Armwood (22-7) had of cutting into the lead to start the second half were quickly erased. Early back-to-back third-quarter buckets pushed Winter Haven's lead to 20. The quarter ended 53-20 in Blue Devils' favor.
Hayes gave Winter Haven a dominating presence inside. She pulled down seven rebounds and set herself up for numerous second-chance opportunities.
"She's pretty long," Armwood's Willonda Windham said. "Her wingspan was so long it was hard to try to get around her when she was posting up."
"She can do it all," Winter Haven coach Ledawn Gibson said. "She can play any position on the court, one through five."
Windham held her own inside and had 15 points to lead Armwood. She finished with nine rebounds, one shy of a double double.
"I think it was their quickness that gave us problems," Windham said. "Watching them on film and playing against them are two different things."
Alexis Walker came off the bench and provided a needed spark for Armwood. She drilled two 3-pointers and had 12 points overall. Monique Reynard added two 3s for six points. Kiara Francisco finished with 13 for Winter Haven.
Despite the win, Gibson felt her team could improve before the region final.
"I thought we turned the ball over a little more than usual," she said of her team's 11 turnovers.
- BRYAN BURNS, Times correspondent