7A: Lakewood Ranch Wins Semis over Niceville
Tina Hadley finally signaled for one of her players sitting on the bench when the clock crept into the final two minutes of the fourth quarter. All five of her players had played the Class 7A semifinal’s first 30 minutes before she finally reached to her bench, and four would play all 32 on Friday.
The Mustangs’ lead swelled to double digits by halftime and ballooned past 20 for much of the final frame, and Hadley still stuck with her starting five. Ranch had ridden a dominant starting five to Lakeland for the final four with a style to complement it and now Hadley would let them guide Lakewood Ranch into the state championship with a 47-29 win against Niceville.
“The plan was to play the best players,” Hadley said. “That’s why they’re well conditioned.”
When the head coach finally pulled small forward India Searls for Sarah Fazio with 1:58 remaining, it swapped a 54-percent free throw shooter for a guard who connects at 71 percent. Until then, the Mustang starters didn’t need any help. Ranch (26-6) played the slow tempo it likes and cruised into the first state championship in program history.
Aside from using a brief press to start the second half, the Eagles (21-10) never found a way to speed up Lakewood Ranch. Each team had only 51 possessions and the Mustangs nearly managed a point per possession by shooting 40.8 percent from the field and collecting 15 offensive rebounds. Niceville shot just 21.7 percent from the floor and barely scored half a point per trip down the floor.
Ranch will face Winter Haven for the Class 7A championship at 4 p.m. on Saturday. The Blue Devils handed Lakewood Ranch one of its six losses with a one-point win in January.
Kyra Klarkowski was the key to the Mustangs’ efficiency edge. The senior only scored nine points on 11 shots, but hit Ranch’s only 3-pointer and grabbed 14 rebounds from the backcourt. Her three offensive rebounds helped Lakewood Ranch overcome poor shooting and her 11 defensive boards contributed to the Mustangs 45-30 rebounding edge.
“I was just under there a lot today, I guess,” said Klarkowski, who entered the game averaging fewer than five rebounds per game. “I just stick my butt into them.
“Push them in the back,” she added with a grin. “Just don’t get caught.”
Searls added eight points and nine rebounds for Ranch, and center LaDazhia Williams finished with a game-high 13 points plus seven boards, three assists, two blocks and a steal. Senior wing Elise Spiller was Lakewood Ranch’s only other player to crack double figures with 11 points. Senior guard Kailyn Scully rounded out the starting lineup with five points, five rebounds, three assists and two blocks
The Mustangs’ trip to the state semifinals was already a first for Ranch and its veteran roster, which began a trajectory toward state contention a year ago. Lakewood Ranch made its first trip to a region final in 2015, falling just short of a final four trip. With three seniors back for this season and Williams – one of ESPN’s top 50 juniors in the country – the Mustangs hoped Lakeland was an inevitable destination.
Early during Friday’s state semifinal, it became clear Ranch would get a second game at The Lakeland Center. Lakewood Ranch took a 9-7 lead midway through the first quarter and wouldn’t trail again. Even without Williams scoring—she missed her first four shots—the Mustangs’ balance gave them an edge. When she started scoring, Ranch pulled away.
“Nothing really changed,” said Williams, who has drawn interest from Connecticut, Notre Dame and South Florida this season. “Just keep shooting until I made them.”
The Eagles held Williams scoreless for nearly 10 minutes before the center found a mismatch against Niceville’s undersized frontcourt and forced an and-one through the hoop. She scored five of Lakewood Ranch’s nine points during the second quarter as the Mustangs methodically built their lead.
The Eagles finally went to a press for the first few possessions of the second half, but Ranch scored on its first two trips and stretched the lead to 14 by the start of the fourth quarter—and eventually as much as 24 during the fourth to once again make school history.
“They like to sit back in a 2-3 and they will press if they have to,” Hadley said. “We already knew that they would eventually come out and try to press. We were prepared for that.”