By Kyle LoJacono
Freedom girls basketball players have made no secret of their mission from Day 1 this season — states.
Standing in the Patriots’ (25-3) way Feb. 16 was defending Class 7A state champion Sebastian River (23-3).
It took every second, but Freedom advanced to the first final four in the program’s 10-year history with a 74-73 win.
The Patriots led 46-36 at halftime and extended their advantage to 14 early in the third.
The Sharks responded with a 16-2 run to tie it 58-58 with 4:26 left in the game, and the host took a 73-70 advantage in the final minute.
Freedom coach Laurie Pacholke took a timeout to deliver a simple message, “Don’t panic.”
Taylor Emery (21 points, seven rebounds) took that to heart two possessions later.
The sophomore guard walked to the line and calmly hit two free throws to cut the deficit to one.
Emery’s poise set up senior forward Faith Woodard’s game-winning layup with 13 seconds left for her team-high 25th point. The Georgetown University signee pulled down her 10th rebound on the ensuing Sebastian River possession with three seconds remaining to secure the regional championship.
“That was by far the most nerve-racking and something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life,” Woodard said of the final 10 seconds.
Pacholke knew the Sharks would make a run.
“They’re too good of a team not to,” Pacholke said. “They’re not just going to roll over and give us a regional championship. … We weathered their storm. They went up on us, but I knew the girls wouldn’t quit.”
Senior point guard Monet Williams played much bigger than her 5-foot-4 frame, pulling down seven rebounds and scoring all six of her points in the fourth.
Williams did her damage on drives to the basket with no fear of Sebastian River’s 6-foot forward KP Pound.
“All I was thinking about was go up strong,” Williams said. “I figured it was worth a try, and I got nothing to lose.”
Pacholke said Williams’ effort speaks to her character.
“She’s got that toughness about her,” Pacholke said. “She knows when it’s her time, and she knows when it’s not. She read the defense and saw that it was there. The kid’s got ice water in her veins.”
The Patriots built their lead with first-half scoring outburst from Emery (15), Woodard (11) and senior guard Whitney Ivy (11).
Ivy, who finished with 13 points, did much of her damage with outside shots.
“For some reason it looked to me like the rims were really close when I was shooting,” Ivy said. “I don’t know why. I felt really hyped on the way over here, so I was just feeling it.”
Freedom was in a battle early with Steinbrenner in the semifinals Feb. 12.
The Warriors (21-7) led 11-6 after the first quarter, but the host Patriots fought back with a 10-4 run to enter halftime ahead 23-22.
“We came into the room at halftime and said that we were not going to lose this game,” said Woodard, who scored 23. “Our goal is still the same. We’re going to state, and they aren’t going to knock us out.”
Pacholke was happy with the fight but not the execution. Principle among her concerns was making just seven of 20 free throws in the first half and 20 of 42 in the game.
“I went in at half and told them, ‘You have a decision. Either we get beat on our home court and you’re embarrassed, or you come out and play Freedom basketball.’ We definitely did that in the second half,” Pacholke said.
Much of the turnaround came from Emery scoring 18 points in the final three quarters after being shutout in the first.
“I saw the score and saw how close they were, and it made me upset,” Emery said. “I was mad that we were losing, so I turned it up. I was ready, and we all fought to bring the game back.”
Steinbrenner played without senior center Lauren Shedd, who averages 4.9 rebounds, after tearing ligaments in her right ankle in the quarterfinals.
Senior forward/guard Bailey Hooker (eight points) helped replace some of Shedd’s rebounding by pulling down eight, but the Patriots punished them on the boards by a margin of 36-21 led by Woodard’s 16.
“Every game we come in and try to win the second-chance opportunities,” Pacholke said. “If we give up too many second-chance points and second-chance shots, it’s going to be a brutal day in practice the next day because we’re going to be running for it. That’s something we take pride in.”
Freedom also put Steinbrenner in foul trouble. Four Warriors’ starters had at least three personals, including senior guard Justice Thigpen (10 points) and sophomore forward Rachel Briere (six rebounds) picking up five with 7:19 and 1:10 left in the contest, respectively.
Freedom plays Gainesville Buchholz in the state semifinals Feb. 22 at 2:30 p.m. at the Lakeland Center, 701 W. Lime St. A victory matches the Patriots against the winner of Haines City/Davie Nova for the 7A state championship Feb. 23 at 5 p.m.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker