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Clearwater girls remain motivated by their last loss

The young and talented Tornadoes top Jefferson in the region semifinals.
The Clearwater girls are one win from state after defeating Jefferson by 20 points on Tuesday night.
The Clearwater girls are one win from state after defeating Jefferson by 20 points on Tuesday night. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 17

CLEARWATER — Dec. 11, 2020. Whenever Clearwater’s energy lapses on the defensive end, whenever the Tornadoes get sloppy with the ball, coach Darian Dublin brings back the specter of that Friday night at Lakewood High, the last time his squad walked off the court on the losing end of the score.

“We had 37 turnovers in that game and you can’t win that way,” Dublin simply said.

Fast forward to Tuesday and the Class 5A region semifinals where the lessons from that game — and the 15 victories that followed — powered the youthful, talented Tornadoes to a decisive 54-34 victory over a game Jefferson squad.

“All season long, we’ve been challenging them,” Dublin said of his team. “Can we stop somebody? Can we control rebounds? Can we control our passing? We’ve tried to find the right words to keep them motivated, keep them on edge so they’ll be like, ‘Yes, yes, yes, we can do this’.”

No doubt Clearwater (23-4) is taking those messages to heart at the right time. The Tornadoes took good care of the ball as a team, committing just seven turnovers, and played hard but clean defense, committing only six fouls while holding the Dragons (17-3) to just 29 percent shooting (16-of-55) from the floor. Jefferson was held scoreless for the final 4 ½ minutes of the first quarter — where Clearwater turned a six-point deficit into an insurmountable 11-point lead — the final five minutes of the third quarter and the last three minutes of the fourth to create the lopsided verdict.

“We realized (Jefferson) is a good, scrappy team,” freshman Beckham Hockley said. “We had to pull it back together, play our game and not get rattled.”

Hockley was definitely not rattled, sparking the first-quarter turnaround with two momentum-turning 3-pointers and 10 of her game-high 20 points, adding a pair of impressively athletic lay-ins to wrap up the win. In between, sophomore Ace Sturdivant stoked the attack for 11 points and five assists to aid the cause.

“If we lose, we’re done,” Hockley said. “We knew we had to pick it up.”

And despite missing 6-foot-4 senior Phillicia Jackson, the Tornadoes owned the paint thanks to the presence of 6-3 junior Kyleigh Welsh and 6-foot sophomore Olivia Fuller.

Playing disciplined defense, Welsh swatted away seven shots and pulled down 12 rebounds to go with her eight points on the offensive end.

“(Kyleigh’s) our shot blocker, and without Phillicia out there, she did it without getting in foul trouble,” Dublin said. “She blocked a lot of big shots.”

And Fuller (eight points, eight boards and three steals) joined Welsh in locking down the defensive end.

Playing most of the game with just its five starters, Jefferson was led by senior Zanalyiah Hutchinson (18 points, 11 rebounds) along with sophomores Kaliyah Gaynor (12 points, five boards) and Reina Labor (12 rebounds).

Next up for Clearwater will be Game No. 28, a Friday road trip to Naples Barron Collier — a 60-38 victor Tuesday over Port Charlotte — with a play date in Lakeland on the line.

“Lakeland has been our goal all season, to play for a state championship,” Hockley said. “It’s time to step up and we have multiple players who can step up. We can get it done with anybody.”