By Jeff Odom
Laker/Lutz News Correspondent
When the final buzzer sounded, Steinbrenner girls basketball coach J.R. Allen raised his arms into the air as his team ran to celebrate at half court.
“I’ve been telling these girls back since September, I want to be part of something that’s called forever,” Allen said. “At the end of that game, I told those girls to celebrate and to point up to that banner and say ‘forever’.”
The No. 1 seeded Warriors overcame a lackluster third quarter, but came through late to defeat the No. 2 Patriots 51-39 on Feb. 3 for the Class 7A-District 9 championship, the program’s first.
Allen said the resilience and effort his team brought was some of the best he has seen all season, and it started with the mentality of playing as a team.
“It’s special because of the way we did it,” Allen said. He then added, “The special thing about this team is the word team itself. Every win lately has been a team win. It just feels so special. … This championship was won by 14 girls who practice their tails off every day.”
The Warriors (22-2) opened the game with a 12-0 run; stopping all of Freedom’s scoring opportunities.
“You can’t start out like that,” said Patriots coach Laurie Pacholke. “In a district championship game you got to come to play, especially on their court. … We got outplayed, we got out hustled, we got out rebounded and you’re not going to win a game like that.”
Guard Bailey Hooker led Steinbrenner’s early charge, scoring 13 of her squad’s points to lead 14-3 after the first quarter. She hit three shots from 3-point land in the opening half.
“It was awesome,” said Hooker, who had a team-high 16 points and five blocks. “Coming off of the past couple of games I’ve been off a little bit on my shooting, so to come out and make that three, I knew that tonight was my night.”
Patriots (18-9) guard Taylor Emery, who had a game-high 20 points, kept her team in it, working through the Warriors’ defense to start the momentum swing headed into halftime but still trailed 31-14.
Freedom chipped away at Steinbrenner’s lead in the third quarter, which got as small as eight before Allen told his team to keep its focus.
“I was really concerned, because it could have been a bad thing based off of what we did in that last game (against Chamberlain),” Allen said. He then added, “We turned around and made the most of it.”
In the fourth quarter with Steinbrenner leading by 11, Hooker delivered the final blow with her fourth 3-pointer of the game with just more than a minute left.
“She just stroked that three and I think that was an emotional lift that helped us carry to the end of the game,” Allen said.
The Warriors found themselves in a tight semifinals battle on Feb. 1 with Chamberlain, which beat Gaither the night before. The Chiefs (8-12) outscored Steinbrenner 31-24 in the second half and got as close as 52-48 before the tournament host pulled away to win 56-48.
Hooker had 14 points and pulled down eight rebounds. Rebecca Cohen and Gabby Sebastian recorded nine rebounds apiece and Rachel Briere blocked five shots.
Freedom defeated Wiregrass Ranch 54-46 in the other semifinals. Guard Shadé Williams led the Patriots with 17 points, while Emery added 11
Bulls (20-8) senior guard Kelly McCaffrey had a team-high 23 points to finish with 1,575 for her career.