LAKELAND — Lakewood's game plan for Thursday's Class 6A state semifinal against Ponte Vedra was all set. As the Spartans trekked up I-4 on Wednesday evening, they talked about their height advantage and how they could score easy baskets in the paint. That plan did kick in — but not until the second half.
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After a sluggish first half, which included 36 percent shooting, Lakewood woke up in the second half and defeated the Sharks 74-59 at the Lakeland Center. That sets up a meeting with Jacksonville Ribault on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. for the Class 6A championship. The Spartans are playing in their first state final since 2013 and are looking for their first title since 2011.
"When we left St. Pete on Wednesday at six that was the game plan," Lakewood coach Necole Tunsil said. "We were taller than them and we should be shooting layups. Stop shooting jump shots. They started coaching themselves in the second half. But it wasn't something they figured out. That was the game plan on the ride up here."
Tunsil watched (semi) calmly in the first half as her team fell behind, took a 10-point lead, then gave it all back by halftime. Ponte Vedra (21-7) went on a 10-2 run midway through the first quarter and held an 11-4 lead after Rachel Aspinwall hit a 3-pointer.
The Sharks led 15-10 after the first quarter, but then the Spartans (24-4) started chipping away. Jaylynn Pressley made a 3-pointer for a 17-16 Lakewood lead. Then came a 10-0 run that included two Paris Williams' layups, as well as layups from Toi Smith and Diana Rosenthal.
Ponte Vedra kept it close thanks to 3-point shots. Freshman Channing Chappell hit two 3-pointers during a 13-3 run to end the half, including one in the final seconds that made it 30-30 at halftime. The Sharks made seven 3-pointers in the game.
Tunsil was only half kidding about her tone during halftime.
"I was talking about their mamas and daddies and how they should be ashamed to have them as their child," she said.
The second half was much different. Lakewood started on an 11-0 run. Williams hit a layup, Smith made two free throws, Samantha Douglas, who scored 12 of her 14 points in the second half, converted a three-point play, Pressley got a layup and Smith ended the run with another layup to make it 41-30.
"We weren't playing our game; we were playing to the level of the competition," Douglas said. "That's something we tend to do. We felt we had a height advantage and that was something we needed to take advantage of."
Lakewood built the lead to 49-35 late in the third quarter. Ponte Vedra made it interesting with 4:10 left when a Gillian Boss layup cut the lead to 61-54. But the Spartans hit free throws down the stretch to ice the game.
Smith finished with 20 points, 15 in the second half. Zariyah Daniels had 15 and Williams 14. Lakewood shot 51 percent in the second half. Chappell led the Sharks with 20 points.
Now comes 24-3 Ribault, which features Tennessee commit Rennia Davis and Mississippi commit Day'Neshia Banks. What do the Spartans need to beat the Trojans?
"We need Jesus," Tunsil said. "Listen, Ribault is a very good team. It's time for our players to step up and see if they're worthy of being an All-American or even an all-stater. At this point it's put up or shut up. Accept the challenge or get mollywhopped."
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