LAND O’ LAKES — This had already been perhaps the greatest season in Land O’ Lakes boys basketball history.
The Gators were 24-2 entering Tuesday’s Class 6A region semifinals. They had won 16 straight, including 12 by double digits. Last week, they won a playoff game for the just the second time ever.
To keep this run going — and make the region finals for the first time — Land O’ Lakes had to get past a familiar nemesis. The Gators had lost to Hillsborough in the quarterfinals each of the past two seasons.
Once again, Land O’ Lakes faced the Terriers, this time in the second around and at home.
Despite having a large — and loud — crowd, its was another frustrating outcome for the Gators.
Hillsborough used its experience to its advantage, winning 52-36 to reach the region finals for a fourth straight season.
The Terriers (27-2) had been on an even more impressive streak, winning 20 straight entering Tuesday’s game. Their only loss on the court (the other came via forfeit because of exams) was more than two months ago.
Hillsborough also had something else in its favor — height. The Terriers have seven players who are 6 feet 4 or taller. By contrast, the Gators have just two players who are at least 6-5.
Early on, Hillsborough used that size to its advantage, feeding the ball inside to take a 14-5 lead at the end of the first quarter and went into the half up 30-15.
“Down low, we’re so big and strong,” Terriers coach Chris Ward said. “We can go 1-2-3 off the bench and not change so why not use it. That was our ultimate goal. But we also missed a lot of layups.”
If there is one thing Ward still wants to see, it’s consistency. Hillsborough can go on great runs but also have lapses.
It happened in the third quarter. The Gators (24-3) used their electrifying guards, Chase Farmer and Mekhi Perry, to go on a 9-0 run, cutting the deficit to 30-24.
But Land O’ Lakes could not get any closer.
The Terriers regained control midway through the third quarter and maintained a double-digit lead throughout the fourth quarter. Tyriq James was the only Hillsborough player who reached double figures in scoring with 12 points — all on 3-pointers.
On Friday, the Terriers will host Auburndale, one step from making the state semifinals for the second straight season.
“We still have a lot of work to do, which is a crazy thing to say considering all we’ve done this season,” Ward said. “Everybody hasn’t clicked together on the same night. When that happens, it’s going to be scary.”