LAKEWOOD RANCH -- All journeys must come to end.
Tina Hadley knows that, which is why the Lakewood Ranch head girls basketball coach was smiling after her Mustangs concluded their season with a 56-42 loss to visiting Dover Strawberry Crest on Thursday night in a Class 6A-Region 3 quarterfinal.
Hadley has been around the game of basketball for a long time and played at the collegiate level. When you lose to a better team and exceed everyone's expectations for the season, there is plenty of reason to feel good.
Strawberry Crest (20-7) features 5-foot-9 junior Aliyah Gregory, one of the top underclassmen in the state. She burned the Mustangs for 32 points, connecting on 12 of 19 shots, including 4 of 4 in the fourth quarter.
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Lakewood Ranch (16-9) couldn't
stop her and got beat handily on the boards, with the Tigers grabbing 30 rebounds (21 offensive) to 21 (seven offensive) for the Mustangs.
"They have a good team. I thought we played pretty well until the last four minutes of the game when we fell apart," Hadley said. "We had a couple of turnovers and mental lapses and couldn't recover from it. Gregory just killed us. We broke their press and half court trap, but just couldn't keep it going."
Lakewood Ranch committed its usual high number of turnovers with 14 in the first half, but managed to stay in the game and took a 39-38 lead into the final period. But Strawberry Crest picked up its defensive intensity in the fourth quarter and held the Mustangs without a basket and only five shot attempts.
"We always get killed on the boards, which is why we always have to play with effort and intensity to make up for our lack of size. We didn't shoot free throws well, and that also hurt us," Hadley said.
Strawberry Crest went on a 10-3 run to start the final quarter and led 48-42 with 2:20 left in the game. Gregory scored 10 points in the quarter. The Mustangs struggled at the free-throw line, converting 3 of 8 attempts in the period and had five turnovers.
Emily Bulfin led the Mustangs with 24 points, connecting on 7 of 17 shots, and was 4-for-8 from beyond the arc. The junior was the only double-digit scorer for Lakewood Ranch. Freshman Kyra Klarkowski had nine points and five rebounds for Ranch.
Lakewood Ranch started Bulfin and four freshmen. In the second half, the youth showed. The Mustangs got off only 18 shots (five made) and shot 14-for-60 for the game. Strawberry Crest was 23-for-62.
Lakewood Ranch was 10-for-17 from the charity stripe and 4-for-14 from 3-point land, with Bulfin getting all the treys. Strawberry Crest was 8-of-15 from the line.
"I told our girls nobody expected you to be here. At the beginning of the season, all I kept hearing was Lakewood Ranch was rebuilding, all they have is a bunch of freshmen and are going to get killed," Hadley said. "We shocked everybody, and I told the girls they have to take it to another level next season, work hard over the summer and get better. It was a good ride. I told our kids if we lose we have to go down fighting, and that's what we did."
Lakewood Ranch, which won the program's first district title this season, loses only one senior. There are three juniors, one sophomore and nine freshmen on the squad.