There was only a brief moment during Lakewood Ranch High School’s 66-50 victory against Tampa Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate when the Mustangs seemed in real danger.
A sudden barrage of 3-pointers — three in less than a minute for the Phoenix — gave them their only lead and forced Lakewood Ranch into a timeout.
“I said to my guards that we had to slow down and run our game,” head coach Tina Hadley said. “We were letting them speed us up.”
The Mustangs returned to the staple of their offense on the next possession. Lakewood Ranch swung the ball around the perimeter, looking for a skip pass to make the Phoenix defense bend. Aleah Robinson finally found an opening and passed inside to LaDazhia Williams. The South Carolina signee turned to the rim and hit a fall-away jumper to give the lead back to the Mustangs for good.
Brooks-DeBartolo scored only eight more points over the remaining 12 minutes. Lakewood Ranch (15-1) returned to its slightly slower tempo to close the game on a 25-8 run and enter the holiday break with another win against a Class 5A contender.
The test the Mustangs passed Wednesday in Lakewood Ranch High School’s gymnasium was exactly the sort Hadley hoped to see when she scheduled the Phoenix. Brooks-DeBartolo (9-5) has found success with a high-pressure defense, which it used to briefly speed up the Mustangs beyond their comfort zone during the third period.
For most of the 32 minutes, though, Lakewood Ranch was unfazed. The Mustangs committed eight turnovers and forced the Phoenix into 13.
“We definitely always want to stay at our own pace,” said wing Aleah Robinson, who also won a Manatee County weightlifting title Tuesday, “and not let teams make us play any faster or slower than what we like to do.”
Lakewood Ranch kept Brooks-DeBartolo at bay for most of the first half, pushing its lead to double digits multiple times and otherwise keeping the Phoenix from pulling closer than six after seizing a 16-10 lead. Even at the start of the second half, the Mustangs opened the frame with a Robinson 3 to take a 39-29 lead.
I said to my guards that we had to slow down and run our game. We were letting them speed us up.
Tina Hadley, Lakewood Ranch head coach
The lead evaporated over the course of eight possessions, and an eight-point lead vanished in three once Alyssa Nieves got hot from behind the arc. The senior drilled three straight contested 3s to turn a 41-36 deficit into a 42-41 lead with about 4:30 to play in the quarter.
“We only had eight turnovers, but we weren’t making good decisions with the ball because of their pressure defense,” Hadley said. “This was a great game because we’re going to have to learn how to handle pressure, but once we settled down in the fourth period we were able to stretch the lead.”
By the end of the third quarter, the Mustangs’ lead was back to five thanks to a pair of buckets by Williams, who finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds, and a 3 by guard Kayla Bell.
And from there, Lakewood Ranch cruised. Brooks-DeBartolo scored seven points during the final quarter, and Nieves, who scored 23 points and hit seven 3s, was held to three points across the last eight minutes.
The Mustangs built methodically, with Williams and Robinson, who scored 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds, combining for 14 of Lakewood Ranch’s 16 fourth-quarter points.
“We don’t like to lose, so anything we have to do to win, we’ll do it,” Robinson said. “When we see that teams start pulling ahead or coming close, we know we have to pick it up, start playing better defense, getting runs.”