LUTZ – When the final buzzer sounded, Steinbrenner girls basketball coach J.R. Allen raised his arms up into the air as his team ran off the bench to celebrate at half court.
“I’ve been telling these girls back since September, I want to be part of something that’s called forever,” Allen said. “At the end of that game, I told those girls to celebrate and to point up to that banner and say ‘forever’.”
The No.1 seeded Warriors had to overcome a tough third quarter, but came through late to defeat the No. 2 Patriots, 51-39 and win their first Class 7A-District 9 title in program history on Feb. 3.
Allen says the resilience and effort his team brought to the game, was some of the best he has seen all season, and it started with the motto of playing as a team.
“It’s special because of the way we did it,” Allen said. He then added, “The special thing about this team, is the word ‘team’ itself. Every win lately has been a team win, it just feels so special.
“This championship was won by 14 girls who practice their tails off every day.”
The Warriors (22-2) opened the game with a 12-0 run, stopping nearly every opportunity the Patriots (18-9) tried to convert.
“You can’t start out like that,” Freedom coach Laurie Pacholke said. “In a district championship game, you got to come to play, especially on their court.”
Steinbrenner guard Bailey Hooker hit numerous three pointers to give her squad the early advantage, but Patriots freshman guard Taylor Emery kept her team in it, working through the Warriors defense to start the momentum swing headed into the half, but still trailed 31-14.
“It was awesome,” Hooker said. “Coming off of the past couple of games I’ve been off a little bit on my shooting, so to come out and make that three, I knew that tonight was my night.
Hooker finished with 16 points and five blocks for the Warriors.
In the second half, the Patriots began to cut away at the Steinbrenner lead, which got as low as eight before Allen told his team to keep its focus.
“I was really concerned, because it could have been a bad thing based off of what we did in that last game (against Chamberlain),” Allen said. He then added, “We turned around and made the most of it.”
In the fourth quarter, with Steinbrenner leading by 11, Hooker delivered the final blow to the Patriots’ chances with a clutch three pointer with just over a minute left, giving her team the boost it needed for the title.
“As a coach, man, I know one of them late in the game was real questionable. I think we were sitting on a seven or eight point lead and the game had really started to get aggressive and they found Bailey in the corner. She just stroked that three and I think that was an emotional lift that helped us carry to the end of the game,” Allen said.
Pacholke says her team will have to step it up next week if it wants to keep moving forward.
“We got outplayed, we got out hustled, we got rebounded and you’re not going to win a game by that,” Pacholke said. She then added, “Now we’ve got to focus and like I told them last year we won the district championship, we beat Sickles and they went to Lakeland. So district championships are great, but the big games are the semifinals.”
In the semifinal games, Steinbrenner survived a scare against No. 4 seed Chamberlain, but managed to win 56-48 and Freedom defeated No. 3 seeded Wiregrass Ranch, 54-46.
The Bulls were led by senior guard Kelly McCaffrey who finished with 23 points.
The Warriors will host St. Petersburg and Freedom will travel to Clearwater for the quarterfinal round of the regional playoffs on Thursday, Feb. 9. Both games start at 7 p.m.
Jeff Odom / Sports Editor