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Spartans "step up' late

5A

The crowd was screaming - parents going crazy, students exhorting their teammates on, teammates on their feet praying - but all Kquanise Byrd could hear was Necole Tunsil.

Not anything she was saying at the moment, mind you. Just the same thing the coach has been saying all year.

"I heard her in my head, over and over, "Kquanise, step up, step up, step up,' " Byrd said. "It's all I could hear."

Byrd made both free throws and scored a lay-up seconds later to nudge Lakewood 44-42 past Clearwater and into a region championship showdown with Largo.

The Spartans (22-5) will be bidding Saturday for their first trip to the state semifinal since 1989, when Tunsil led them to the championship.

They'll need a more consistent effort than they turned in Tuesday. Though devastating with their press early in building a 28-19 halftime lead, the Spartans tried to run some clock and struggled in a methodical third quarter, then let an eight-point lead slip away in the final quarter.

Behind guard Brittany Carannante and forward Lauren Lee, the Tornadoes (23-6) tied it at 36 with 3:04 left on Carannante's drive to the hoop.

Lakewood twice was called for traveling violations and missed the front end of a bonus over the next minute, but Clearwater couldn't walk through the door.

Carannante pulled up for a 3-pointer and missed with 1:40 left. Byrd grabbed the rebound and streaked down the court before getting fouled.

The Spartans were 0-for-3 in the quarter, but Byrd (13 points) pumped her fists and hollered at the basket before sinking both attempts, her team's first points of the quarter.

"It's been a while since we've seen Kquanise be a leader like that," Tunsil said. "At Southeast last week (in the region quarterfinal), she put the team on her back, and did it again (Tuesday)."

Byrd picked Carannante's pocket a few seconds later and laid the ball in for a 40-36 lead, and Sade Brown gobbled up every Clearwater miss down the stretch with four rebounds in the last minute.

Her two free throws made it 42-36 with 56 seconds left.

Carannante (17 points) made a 3-pointer to cut the lead in half, but two Lakewood free throws sealed the win.

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