By most metrics, the past few seasons for Lakewood Ranch High School have been the program’s most successful.
With dozens of regular-season wins, some postseason trophies and a handful of players likely to play at the Division I level, a 45-32 victory against Sarasota in the Class 8A-District 11 final may wind up a footnote during this era. The Mustangs’ celebration on their home court lingered, though.
During LaDazhia Williams’ four-year career, Lakewood Ranch has won regular-season district championships, a region championship and come within 13 points of winning a state title. Yet, an actual district championship trophy eluded the South Carolina signee and the Mustangs.
“It feels real good,” said Williams, who ESPN ranks 47th in this recruiting class and a five-star prospect. “This is our first one since I’ve been here, so it just feels good to have hard work finally pay off.”
The Class 8A-11 trophy — which didn’t arrive before the game, forcing Lakewood Ranch to use a placeholder — will fit nicely among the accolades Williams has helped bring the Mustangs, even if the 13-point margin of victory wasn’t easy to come by. Lakewood Ranch (24-3) trailed during the second quarter and led by two at halftime before finally burying the Sailors (21-3) with defense in the second half.
It feels real good. This is our first one since I’ve been here, so it just feels good to have hard work finally pay off.
LaDazhia Williams, Lakewood Ranch center
Lakewood Ranch used one significant offensive burst during the second half to build separation during the final 16 minutes. Instead, the Mustangs methodically created distance while holding Sarasota to 10 points during the final two periods.
“We gave them a hard time. They couldn’t really score in the second half,” head coach Tina Hadley said. “I challenged my team at halftime. I was like, We have to turn up the defense. We have to give more effort than we gave first half if we want to walk out of here with a win.”
Lakewood Ranch avoided thinking of its previous mishaps during the district championships, even as the early similarities were hard to avoid. Hadley admitted the Mustangs “blew it last year” when they squandered a fourth-quarter lead against a shorthanded Palmetto team at home. Avenging the stunning loss with a district title was on the Mustangs’ short list of goals for 2017.
But Lakewood Ranch’s hit-or-miss offense stagnated most of the evening. Only four players scored, and Williams accounted for nearly half of the Mustangs’ points with 21. It was enough to keep Sarasota, which lost its two previous meetings against Lakewood Ranch by a combined 39 points, within striking distance into the fourth quarter.
“We worked so hard to not win,” Williams said. “We just kept thinking about that and thinking about just playing good defense because that’s what we’ve really been working on.”
An 8-0 run during the third quarter stretched Lakewood Ranch’s lead to 13 points for the first time just before the start of the fourth quarter, but quickly the Sailors found new life. Williams picked up her fourth foul and went to the bench with the Mustangs’ lead down to 10.
Williams sat for about five minutes during the fourth quarter and Lakewood Ranch scored only two points, and still the Mustangs stretched their lead. Lakewood Ranch’s identity is still built around its defense, which has now held opponents to 35 points or fewer 11 times this season.
It will be this defense that the Mustangs will have to lean on to achieve the rest of their 2017 goals: A Class 8A-Region 3 trophy and a Class 8A championship. The rest of the journey begins Thursday when Lakewood Ranch plays host to North Port in the region quarterfinals.
“Two more,” Hadley said, “but we have to take it one game at a time.”
Class 8A-District 11: Lakewood Ranch 45, Sarasota 32
Class 6A-District 11: St. Pete Lakewood 66, Bayshore 38
Class 3A-District 5: Bradenton Christian 58, Saint Stephen’s 49