CLEARWATER -- Days after a disappointing loss that came with the district title at stake, all Lakewood Ranch had to do to keep its girls basketball season alive was hop on a bus, head over the Sunshine Skyway, navigate Route 19 during rush hour and beat a Clearwater team ranked ninth in the state in Class 7A.
The Mustangs cleared all those hurdles Thursday, including the final task, which they carried out with surprising ease.
Lakewood Ranch crushed Clearwater 77-47 in a Class 7A-Region 3 quarterfinal, ripping through a Tornadoes team that entered the tournament with a 22-2 record. As the home team marched toward the exits moments after the final buzzer, there were the Mustangs, gleefully posing for pictures
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"Definitely worth the trip," said coach Tina Hadley, whose team raised its record to 21-7 after losing last Friday's District 10 title game to Sarasota.
The Tornadoes had no answer for LaDazhia Williams, the Mustangs' 6-foot-3 freshman center. Whether triple- or double-teamed, Williams had little trouble grabbing rebounds (13) or generating offense (28 points) for a Lakewood Ranch team that outscored Clearwater 68-33 after the first quarter.
"I just tried to position myself well so my teammates could get me the ball," Williams said. "And I just found my way on defense to get rebounds and pull them down."
Feeding Williams was the game plan, Hadley said.
"We needed to push the ball every time, and we needed to look inside every time," she said, "and it worked in our favor."
The Mustangs dominated the glass, too, pulling in 46 rebounds to Clearwater's 22. Sophomore Kailyn Scully grabbed 11, and freshman Jessica Reid had nine, helping Lakewood Ranch overcome a 14-9 deficit after the first quarter.
"When the game started, I felt like we were playing a little jittery, like we had the jitters," Hadley said. "Once we settled down and relaxed, we got into our game plan."
The settling began during a 21-point second quarter, when Williams poured in nine points, Scully hit consecutive 3-pointers and Clearwater shot 25 percent from the field, which allowed the Mustangs to exploit their dominance on the glass.
"We were a little off," Williams said of the shaky first quarter. "We just picked it up and came back and played our hardest."
Scully had 12 points, and Emily Bulfin added 16 for the Mustangs.
Next up is a rematch on the road with Sarasota in Tuesday's regional semifinal.
Hadley is happy with how her team managed to get that far.
"That shows me that they have perseverance," she said, "and character has been built throughout the season. So I think we're kind of preparing for the long haul."