TAMPA — Destination ... Lakeland.
For the second time in school history, Brooks DeBartolo earned a ticket to next week’s Polk County-based state tournament with a gate-to-wire 76-39 victory Friday against Palm Beach Gardens Benjamin to win the Class 3A region championship.
The Phoenix, ranked fourth in their class by MaxPreps, carry a six-game win streak into Wednesday’s semifinal against top-ranked Miami Country Day (20-3). The title game is two days later.
Brooks DeBartolo (17-5) played a complete game: dominant on offense and defense, with all five starters scoring in double figures and eight Phoenix players getting into the scoring column.
“We’ve talked about it all year getting to Lakeland,” Brooks DeBartolo second-year coach Ellie Wilbur said. “It’s one of our goals on the board. We want to be district champs, we want to be regional champs. So we’re well on our way. We’re very, very excited. ... Our job isn’t done. We still want to get two more (wins). But it’s a big deal getting to Lakeland (and) I’m very proud of my girls.”
Two more victories would give Brooks DeBartolo its first state championship. The only other time the Phoenix advanced to the final four was 2016, when they lost 72-30 to Orlando Lake Highland Prep in the title game.
Benjamin (10-7), the state’s 11th-ranked 3A team, had to play catchup from the outset. Brooks DeBartolo used a pair of 9-0 spurts in the first quarter to take command. The first blitz came with the Phoenix leading 3-2. Then, Brooks DeBartolo closed the first quarter with nine unanswered points for a 21-6 lead, a margin that never dipped below 12 the rest of the way.
The Buccaneers missed 13 of their first 15 shots and were held to 32.5 percent shooting overall (16 of 49). They were looking for their first state appearance since 2004, when they won the last of their four state championships.
Brooks DeBartolo applied continual defensive pressure and feasted by working the ball inside. Of the Phoenix’s 29 field goals, 18 were layups. They also produced 16 points at the foul line.
“(Benjamim) would shoot and shoot. ... They had six 3s in the first half,” Wilbur said. “I thought we did a better job in the second half trying to get after the 3-point line. We hang our hat on defense. Usually, when we keep (opponents) under 40, good things happen.”
Triniti Youngblood led Brooks DeBartolo with 18 points. Jaela Davis had 13, Brionna McClinton 12, Ayonna Simmons 11 and Amarie Godwin 10. All are seniors except for Davis, a junior.
“We’ve been working for this since our freshman year, and all of our hard work has finally paid off,” said McClinton, a 5-foot-9 senior who plans to attend the University of Charleston (W.Va.) on an athletic and academic scholarship. “It feels good to finally cut the nets down in our own gym.
“Defense is something that is one of the most worked-on things during practice. If we can stop a team from scoring, we can stop them from winning.”
Brooks DeBartolo forced 18 turnovers — nine in the first quarter — and took 15 more shots than Benjamin. The Phoenix connected on 45 percent of their 64 attempts.
“We’ve told them all year if we can have a nice balanced attack, we’d be a very difficult team to beat,” Wilbur said. “Any night, I feel that any one of them could go off.
“We play together, everyone scores, we have a good time ... and we usually get in the win column.”
Girls basketball state semifinals
At RF Funding Center, Lakeland
Plant vs. Orange Park Oakleaf, 12:30 p.m. Feb. 26
Clearwater vs. American Heritage, 4 p.m. Thursday
Brooks DeBartolo vs. Miami Country Day, 4 p.m. Wednesday