LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Aesthetically it was not exactly a Mona Lisa. In fact, Lakewood Ranch head girls basketball coach Tina Hadley admitted it was downright ugly.
But this is the time of year when the only thing that matters is the final score.
In a turnover-infested, foul-plagued game in which the refs struggled as much as the players, host Lakewood Ranch emerged with a 37-32 victory over Palmetto in the Class 6A-District 12 final on Friday night.
It's the first girls basketball district championship in school history. Hadley, who is in her sixth year as the Lady Mustangs head coach, was district runner-up twice.
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The most impressive stat for Lakewood Ranch (16-8) is that it started four freshmen along with junior and leading scorer Emily Bulfin.
"The key tonight was that we hustled and showed a lot of intensity on the floor," Hadley said. "We didn't execute. We turned the ball over, but effort will win
games every time. We hit some clutch free throws at the end. I told the girls we had to pick up our intensity and crash the boards and get a rebound."
The game was tied for the last time at 28 with 3 minutes, 46 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter when Kyra Klarkowski converted both ends of a one-and-one for Ranch. Palmetto (18-9) turned the ball over, and Bulfin broke free downcourt for a layup to push the lead to four points with 2:24 remaining.
The Tigers made one last run. Jermisha Collins dropped in one of two free throws with 23.4 second left to cut Palmetto's deficit to 34-32.
Elise Spiller connected on one of two free throws for Ranch to push the lead to 35-32 with 17.5 seconds remaining. Palmetto missed a shot from beyond the arc and on an inbounds pass under the Palmetto basket Spiller broke free down court took a long pass and dropped in a layup to account for the final score with six seconds remaining.
"Our freshmen reacted as freshmen tonight with all those turnovers, but along with being a freshman when the coach says run through the wall they are going to try and run through that wall. When I asked them pick up the intensity, they did just that," Hadley said.
Lakewood Ranch trailed 21-16 at halftime, but the Mustangs held Palmetto without a field goal in the third quarter (0-for-10 shooting) and forced 11 turnovers to assume a 25-23 lead heading into the fourth period.
Palmetto shot 3-for-23 in the second half and committed 16 turnovers. For the game, the Tigers were 12-for-52 from the floor and outrebounded Lakewood Ranch 25-19, including 9-3 on the offensive glass.
The Mustangs connected on 12 of 46 field-goal attempts, committed 25 turnovers and shot a dismal 3-for-16 from beyond the arc.
"We missed some shots we should've made. It was nothing they did," Palmetto head coach Robert Kelly said. "We accomplished a lot of things. Our leading scorer (Alyssa Ward) went down before the season, and that was 21 points per game we lost. A lot of young ladies had to step up and play a position they were not used to playing. I believe once we leave our own area (region quarterfinals) we will be better off."
Bulfin led Lakewood Ranch with 13 points. Kailyn Scully had 10 points and six rebounds. Spiller chipped in 10 points and Klarkowski had six rebounds.
Collins topped Palmetto with 10 points, eight steals and five rebounds. Alexis Washington led the Tigers on the boards with eight rebounds and contributed seven points.
Lakewood Ranch will be home Thursday night in the Class 6A-Region 3 quarterfinal against 6A-11 runner-up Strawberry Crest. Palmetto will travel to play 6A-11 champion Tampa Sickles, which defeated Strawberry Crest 67-58.