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Tampa Bay Tech girls denied a return trip to state

But the defending champs don’t go down easy at Winter Haven, falling by two points.
Tampa Bay Tech, still missing star sophomore Janiah Barker, falters in the region final Friday, but if healthy should make another deep playoff run next season. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

WINTER HAVEN — Avoiding a blowout looked like the more immediate goal for Tampa Bay Tech, much less repeating as state champion. But down 47-32 with three minutes left in the third quarter, the visiting Titans put on a dramatic charge only to fall short in the Class 6A, Region 2 girls basketball final.

Host Winter Haven (22-8) made just enough free throws, including three during a key technical foul sequence after the Titans had cut the margin to three, to hold on for a 60-58 victory. The Blue Devils, winners of state titles in 2017 and 2018, are in the final four for the 23rd time.

But not without a big scare.

“Just a little bit stressful, I’m not gonna lie,” said Winter Haven junior standout Trinity Hardy, who led the way with 23 points. The stressors included Tampa Bay Tech junior K’Nisha Godfrey, who paced the visitors with 19. She and Jasmine Peaks (12 points) both had looks at go-ahead shots with two minutes left but their 3-point tries missed.

Winter Haven looked the part of a region top seed, forcing turnovers almost casually. Winter Haven led 32-25 at the break and made back-to-back steals early in the second half to set a dominant tone, getting the margin up to 15 with 2:50 left in the third.

But in just 25 seconds Godfrey sank two free throws, fed Kieran Allen for a score after a steal, and after yet another swipe scored herself to make it 50-45 late in the third quarter.

“Jasmine Peaks and K’Nisha Godfrey, they’re some pretty good guards. You can’t reach on them, you gotta contain 'em. It’s not so much about steals, it’s about contain. Once we got it together we were fine, but that little shake-up got us,” said Hardy.

The Titans (23-7) really had the hosts shaking, multiple times, in the frenzied final stanza. Tech tore up the offensive glass, getting four tries on its very first possession and nine offensive boards in all.

But the foul line was everything. In fact Winter Haven only went 1-of-3 from the floor in the fourth, though getting fouled on several attempts, and managing to go 7-of-12 at the line. Amiya Evans, who claimed 10 rebounds, scored on a putback to draw Tech within 52-49 with 5:20 left — closest since the score was 22-19 — but found herself out of the contest 20 seconds later.

Evans was called for her fourth foul on a clean-looking block, vehemently disagreed and slammed the ball down. The resulting technical fouled her out, and the Blue Devils sank 3 of 4 at the line.

But even after Winter Haven went ahead by eight, the Titans made one last push. Allen sank a 3, then Peaks made a steal and score and it was 57-55. Then came another steal and the 3-point attempts for the lead. The teams exchanged turnovers, and Winter Haven played keepaway for 30 seconds before Shelby Ricks hit two clutch free throws at :23.

It was 60-56 before the Titans got their final basket at the :05 mark, but with no timeouts left, the Blue Devils simply let the ball stay on the ground, ending the Titans’ season.

Tech has an excellent chance at making another bid, with none of its regulars graduating. That includes 6-foot-3 sophomore star Janiah Barker, who the Titans dearly missed Friday, out with ankle injury since sustaining it against Plant several games ago. Barker scored 17 points with 10 rebounds in last year’s state championship game.

On Friday, Godfrey added four assists, and 6-foot junior Jayla Murray was big with nine points and 10 rebounds, seven offensive. She had three putbacks in the final 4:45 of the first half to keep the Titans in it. After Hardy, who had her average of 16 achieved at halftime, four other Blue Devils scored at least seven, led by 12 from 5-11 junior Shomari Phillips.

Tech jumped ahead 4-0, but Winter Haven answered with a 14-5 run keyed by its own offensive board work. But in the end the Titans held a 36-22 advantage on the glass.

Winter Haven was just 1-for-6 on 3-point tries in the first quarter with Tech sticking in a 2-3 zone, then did not attempt a 3 in the second. The Blue Devils did strike twice from distance in the third to help create the big margin, one it turned out that they needed. Tech forced the same amount of turnovers in the fourth quarter (five) as Winter Haven had committed all night prior.