LAKELAND — Hillsborough took a business approach to its second straight semifinal appearance. The Terriers coaching staff wore suits. The players sported sleeveless shirts with the team’s motto on the back: unfinished business.
Getting back to Lakeland’s RP Funding Center was not enough. Hillsborough wanted to make amends for a 36-point loss in last year’s semifinals. The only way to do that was to advance to the title game for the first time since 1969.
The Terriers fell short of their goal in heartbreaking fashion.
After rallying in the second half to force overtime, Hillsborough watched as Dillard took control. The Panthers got to the free throw line often. Once there, they did not miss, hitting all six attempts down the stretch.
That was the difference in Dillard’s 47-44 victory.
By winning, the Panthers move on Saturday’s final and have the chance to win their third state title in the last four years.
Afterward, Terriers coach Chris Ward perused the stats and could only shake his head. Hillsborough committed 20 turnovers and shot 31 percent on field goals and 56 percent on free throws.
“We can’t win if we don’t hit shots or take care of the basketball,” Ward said. “I tried to explain to these guys just how much better they are when they take care of the basketball.
“I just shot at those stats and we lost by three points in overtime. That shows you they are a much better basketball team than they displayed today. We just chose the wrong time to have a bad game.”
Aside from their attire, the Terriers (28-3) did not change much in preparation for their second semifinal appearance. Ward took the players to the basketball courts at downtown Tampa's Perry Harvey Sr. Park this week just as he did last season. There was no poring over a meticulous game plan. No X's and O's. The only thing stressed was taking shots, same as a year ago.
Hillsborough did not need a major overhaul. After all, Ward’s methods have produced exceptional results. The Terriers entered Friday on a 21-game win streak. Included in that total was a 17-point win over Pompano Beach Blanche Ely, which defeated Dillard twice earlier this season and has won five of the past seven state titles in Class 8A.
There were other factors that had Hillsborough confident it could pull through in the semifinals.
The Terriers were the only district champion among the 7A semifinalists. And they had a balanced and deep lineup with seven players averaging five points or more per game.
But the Panthers (21-6) are a battle-tested team, winning three playoff games on the road, the last against defending state champion Doral Academy.
After falling behind 11-9 in the first quarter, Dillard started finding its rhythm. The Panthers outscored Hillsborough 13-8 in the second quarter to go into halftime with a 22-19 lead.
In the third quarter, Dillard went ahead 32-23.
The Terriers showed their resiliency, rallying to force a tie at the end of regulation. Hillsborough even had a chance to take the lead but missed a pair of free throws and a 3-pointer in the final two minutes before going into overtime.
After five lead changes and five ties, the Panthers took control for good. Makere Williams hit two free throws and DeShawn Bartley made a layup and completed a three-point play by knocking down a free throw to give Dillard a 43-37 lead.
The Terriers cut their deficit to 43-42 with 10 seconds left but could not get any closer.
Christian DeLeon and Tyriq James each had nine points to lead Hillsborough in scoring.
“It was fun,” DeLeon said. “It’s great having these guys around me and having a great coach. We were confident, but we came out struggling. It happens. That’s life. I’ll just move on to the next chapter.”