LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Kyra Klarkowski wasn't supposed to play.
Yet there she was, inserted to give a jolt to a stagnant Lakewood Ranch girls basketball team during the second half of Wednesday's Class 7A-District 11 semifinal.
"She's always our spark plug," Lakewood Ranch head coach Tina Hadley said.
Klarkowski was scheduled to rest to recover from a nagging plantar fasciitis injury.
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But the Mustangs, who are ranked No. 2 in the state in the class, were in a dogfight with pesky Venice.
So Hadley said she told Klarkowski, a senior, to put her uniform on at halftime.
Her inclusion during the
third quarter coincided with Hadley cranking up the pace with a full-court press that the Mustangs (21-5) rode to a 49-32 victory against the Indians.
"We had to try to speed the game up," Hadley said. "They wanted to slow the game down and work the clock."
Before the defensive switch and Klarkowski suiting up, the Indians (15-12) held a 24-21 lead with 5:03 remaining in the third quarter.
That's when Klarkowski entered the fray, and Hadley dialed up the defense with the full-court press that forced Venice into seven consecutive turnovers to end the third period.
The chief benefactors of the switch were Kailyn Scully, who finished with a team-high nine steals, India Searls (five steals) and Sarah Fazio (three steals).
Fazio, who stands 4-foot-11, is a player who Hadley said can run all day and is underestimated half the time due to her size.
But on Wednesday, she wreaked havoc during that third-quarter surge.
"That helped a lot," said Fazio about going to a press. "We got to steal the ball a lot."
Meanwhile, the Mustangs' efficient first-half offense, where they shot 52.6 percent from the floor, slowly generated some separation by the close of the third period.
The fourth quarter produced more thievery as Lakewood Ranch finished with 25 steals as a team. Klarkowski had three, while the Mustangs limited Venice to one field goal following the defensive scheme changing.
Venice scored 11 points in the last two quarters.
"Basically, I'm just thinking to myself, 'Go and create some chaos and make something happen,'" Klarkowski said.
That chaos pushes Lakewood Ranch closer to a district championship. The Mustangs host the Class 7A-District 11 final against Palmetto, who defeated Sarasota in Wednesday's other semifinal, on Friday.
Heralded junior LaDazhia Williams netted a game-high 20 points, while Elise Spiller chipped in 16 points.
Palmetto 44, Sarasota 27 -- Tina Stephens scored 21 points and produced 14 rebounds, five blocks, six steals and eight assists to lead the visiting Tigers (20-6) in the other Class 7A, District 11 semifinal.
Palmetto led throughout, including 21-14 at halftime and 28-21 after three quarters. Taylor Rozier gave Palmetto a needed boost, scoring all eight of her points in the fourth quarter. She finished with 10 rebounds. Conner Rozier contributed 11 assists.
The victory gives Palmetto two wins in the teams' three meetings this season. The Tigers lost by two in Sarasota and won by 24 at home during the regular season. They will be looking for their first win this season against Lakewood Ranch, which won the teams' regular-season meetings by 10 and 15 points.
Jason Dill, sports reporter, can be reached at 745-7017 or via email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jason__Dill and like his Facebook page at Jason Dill Bradenton Herald.