LAKELAND — Tampa Bay Tech coach Reggie Lawrence couldn’t help but feel uneasy. His Titans jumped out to a big lead against St. John’s Bartram Trail in Friday’s Class 8A state semifinal. Then the shots stopped falling.
Been there, done that.
“I was a little nervous because that was the same thing we did against (Davie) Nova last year (in the state semifinal),” Lawrence said. “We got out to a lead and gave it up. Having gone through that, I think, helped us in the long run.”
It also helped to have a suffocating defense.
Tampa Bay Tech pulled away from the Bears late in the third quarter and sweated out a 44-32 win at the RP Funding Center. The Titans (29-3) will play Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (23-6) on Saturday for the state championship at 4:30.
“Defense won that game,” freshman forward Janiah Barker said. “I’m not going to say we scored a bunch of points. If our defense stays the way it was today then we are definitely going to win tomorrow.”
The first half was far from a basketball clinic. The Titans’ only shot 29 percent from the field (8-for-27) and missed all six free throws. The only silver lining was that the Bears made 19 percent of their shots (4-for-21) and had nine turnovers.
The game started well for the Titans. They scored the first nine points and looked as if they might run away from the Bears. Then the rim seemed to get smaller. Staked to a 14-3 lead at the end of the first, Tampa Bay Tech scored only five points and took a 19-13 lead to the locker room.
“We were turning the ball over, doing things we don’t usually do,” sophomore guard K’Nisha Godfrey said. “But we never panicked. We calmed down and did what we had to do.”
But there were a few nervous moments before the Titans finally kicked it in. Bartram Trail (24-8) opened the third quarter on an 8-2 run. When Dana Art hit a 3-pointer midway through the third, the score was tied at 21.
That just seemed to motivate Tampa Bay Tech. Amiya Evans scored a layup. After a turnover (the Titans caused 15) Godfrey made a 3-pointer for a 26-21 lead. But at the end of the third quarter the lead was only 28-24.
Jasmine Peaks opened the fourth with a 3-pointer to make the lead 31-24. Two free throws and a layup by Jayla Murray made it 35-29 with five minutes to play. From there, the Titans won from the free-throw line.
After missing their first eight free throws, they made 8 of 9 to end the game and seal the win. The Bears managed only two points in the final five minutes.
“We just didn’t panic,” Lawrence said. “We were just going to play our game and do the things we’ve done all season long. It paid off.”
Peaks led Tampa Bay Tech with 11 points. Godfrey and Barker each had nine. Barker also had 12 rebounds and two steals.
Bartram Trail was led by Art’s 10 points. Sophomore Bella Weary, who averages 20 points per game, was held to eight.
Tampa Bay Tech, which starts three sophomores and two freshmen, is trying to win the school’s first girls basketball title.
“They are young but they’ve got some dog in them,” Lawrence said. “They were focused. They enjoy winning. Every time they step out on the court that is their goal.”