LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Taylor Rozier trudged to the Palmetto bench for the final time with 2:28 left in the third quarter. With more than 10 minutes of game time remaining and the Tigers trailing by nine, PHS' top guard had already fouled out.
Lakewood Ranch head coach Tina Hadley watched in disbelief. She gave a perplexed look to the official the scorer's table, and spread her palms wide to ask if it was really possible Rozier had already picked up her fifth foul.
"That was the longest we've had to play without her -- a full quarter," Palmetto post player Tina Stephens said. "Everyone else had heart and kept playing."
Without their primary ballhandler, the Tigers started to run their offense almost exclusively through Stephens and fellow center Conner Rozier. PHS didn't take its first lead until the first minute of the fourth quarter and it triggered a back-and-forth final period until Palmetto finally scored a 48-44 upset of the top-seeded Mustangs in the Class 7A-District 11 championship at Lakewood Ranch High School.
Stephens finished with 24 points to lead all scorers and outdueled Ranch center LaDazhia Williams, ESPN.com's No. 43 player in the Class of 2017, in the post. Williams finished with 20 points, but missed a potential game-tying shot near the basket in the final minutes. Two possessions later, Stephens scored a putback and-one with six seconds left to seal the No. 3-seed Tigers' first district championship since 2012.
Stephens strutted to midcourt as the ball fell through the hoop and pumped her fist toward the PHS fans seated at the far side of the gym. Palmetto, which had lost two regular-season meetings to the Mustangs by a total of 31 points, clinched a home game against Naples Gulf Coast in the Class 7A-Region 3 quarterfinals Thursday in Palmetto.
Ranch will travel to Fort Myers to face Riverdale in the quarters.
"It was over once I did that," Stephens said. "They still had a chance, but when that happened it kind of put it away and we held them off."
After the Tigers (21-6) took their first lead with 7:40 remaining, Williams put the Mustangs (21-6) back ahead 30 seconds later with one of her two fourth-quarter field goals. PHS didn't lead again until the final 40 seconds.
Stephens planted herself along the baseline on the left side of the paint and Rozier received the ball at the right elbow. With the game tied 44-44, she backed down toward the basket and spun toward the rim for the go-ahead layup.
They were Rozier's only two points of the game.
"Our defense was terrible," Hadley said. "We didn't play defense. I don't know who that team was. I was like, Really?"
And Palmetto's offense was predictable. After falling into an early 12-0 hole, the Tigers slowed the pace and when Taylor Rozier fouled out they made the game even more of a grind. Stephens would either come 35 feet away from the basket for a pick and roll, and then charge to the rim herself, or Conner Rozer would start a post up near the free throw line and pick out either a cutter down the lane or shooter on the perimeter.
PHS was methodical and Ranch, the No. 2 team in 7A, made uncharacteristic mistakes, which were only amplified by the tempo and stakes of the contest.
"We spent two hours yesterday preparing for this team," Palmetto head coach Robert Kelly said. "If God's willing, we'll take care Thursday and then next Tuesday we'll be at Palmetto. It starts all over again."