By Kyle LoJacono
Freedom girls basketball debunked the adage about it being difficult to beat a team three times in one year with a 63-45 victory over Steinbrenner Feb. 1 for the Class 7A-District 9 championship.
“I didn’t really talk to them about winning the third game; I talked to them about playing our game,” said Patriots coach Laurie Pacholke. “We felt going in that the other two games were closer than we should have allowed. That’s really what we emphasized was coming out here and stepping up our game as a complete unit. That happened tonight.”
The victory was by the largest margin for Freedom (22-3) over the Warriors (20-6) this season after winning 44-37 and 52-48 in overtime during the first and second contests, respectively.
“We definitely wanted to make a statement and show that we are a state caliber team, and not just a team that can win in Hillsborough County,” said Patriots senior forward Faith Woodard, a Georgetown University signee. “We have bigger teams to face, we have one goal in mind and we just had to set the record straight once and for all. … I mean, 63-45 — that says it all.”
Freedom used a full-court press defense, which created 29 turnovers and limited Steinbrenner to two second-chance shots.
“That was the first time anyone really pressed us, and, I’ll be dead honest, I’m surprised it took them to the third game to do it,” said Warriors coach JR Allen. “When the pressure came we did not handle the pressure at all.”
Pacholke also had Taylor Emery play the Warriors’ point guards instead of defending in the post, which worked to the tune of eight steals.
The move was also designed to keep Emery out of foul trouble, which was a problem during the first two games against Steinbrenner. The sophomore guard finished with 24 points and only three fouls.
“She locked down on defense and gave it everything she had,” Woodard said.
The Patriots, who never trailed in the contest, turned their smothering defense into transition offense thanks to Woodard (29 points) and Emery combining to score 53, including Freedom’s first 48.
“That’s what happens when you have two kids who are going to the highest level in collegiate basketball,” Pacholke said. “You know, as much as people know about them, when you’re that good there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.”
Allen said Woodard’s reach and height was difficult to contend with, especially because his squad was off its game.
“Every great team at some point has that game where nothing seems to go right, and that definitely was the case for us tonight,” Allen said. “It’s not like I can tell one of my girls to go match up against a 6-foot-3 girl who’s going to Georgetown. It takes a team effort to do that, and we struggled to do that. …Sometimes great athletes beat good basketball teams, and I still think we’re a pretty good basketball team.”
Woodard led her squad with 11 rebounds, seven steals and six blocks, while sophomore center Bianca Igwe had nine rebounds.
Senior guards Neena Pacholke and Whitney Ivey dished out six and four assists, respectively, and senior forward Lauren Repp had six points.
“Me and Faith did score a lot, but the whole team contributed,” Emery said. “Bianca had a lot of rebounds, Neena passed the ball well, Whitney played good defense. It was a great effort.”
Warriors sophomore forward Rachel Briere had a team-high 13 points, pulled down six rebounds and blocked three shots. Senior forward/guard Bailey Hooker had nine points, while junior guards Taylor Thigpen and Olivia Unger scored seven and five, respectively.
The Patriots host the regional quarterfinals Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. against Clearwater, the same team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season. Steinbrenner plays the same night and time at St. Petersburg, which beat the Warriors in overtime in the quarters in 2012.
Victories by both 7A-9 squads would create a fourth meeting at Freedom Feb. 12.
“My mindset all year long is that we’re going to play them four times,” Allen said. “That’s what I believe. It’s more difficult for us now because we have to go on the road to get that chance. … Is my confidence shaken? No, because I know how we’re capable of playing.”
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker
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