By Kyle LoJacono
Freedom girls basketball’s deepest run in the playoffs was ended Feb. 22 by Gainesville Buchholz in the Class 7A state semifinals at the Lakeland Center.
The Patriots (25-4) mounted a furious second-half comeback that nearly erased a 19-point deficit, but the Bobcats (27-4) hit their free throws down the stretch to hang on for the victory. Buchholz defeated Davie Nova the following day to claim the state title.
“You know, you can’t come up here and get down and expect to be able to fight back,” said Freedom coach Laurie Pacholke. “We gave it a good effort, but again you can’t come up here and get yourself in a hole and be able to dig yourself out of it against teams like this. … I’m extremely proud of this team for getting here, making history.”
The Patriots cut the Bobcats’ lead to 65-60 with 3:54 left in the contest, but Buchholz hit 11 of its last 12 free throw attempts for the win.
“You get in a situation where you have to foul, and lord have mercy did they make their free throws,” Pacholke said. “If they missed a couple free throws that would have easily been our game.”
Freedom senior forward Faith Woodard, a Georgetown University signee, and sophomore guard Taylor Emery led the comeback by each scoring 13 in the second half. Woodard finished with a team-high 26 points, 15 rebounds, four assists and three blocks, while Emery totaled 21 points and eight rebounds.
“We just looked at the clock and we were like we’re down by 19,” Woodard said. “This is a 19-point deficit, and we didn’t give up. We’ve been down before, and we just tried to execute.”
Pacholke said the effort to climb back into the game shows the determination in her players.
“These kids have been fighters all year long,” Pacholke said. “Even on the track back in August when they wanted to quit during preseason conditioning, they didn’t. … A lot of teams down by 19 in the state semifinals, they would have quit. I knew they’d keep fighting.”
Freedom started with leads of 6-0 and 11-6, but the Bobcats’ full-court press defense forced long passes and rushed shots that limited the Patriots’ offense.
“It was like playing us,” Emery said. “They were so aggressive, and they knew how to work their press. All the other teams we faced, they have a press, but it definitely wasn’t as aggressive as that one. I think that one really caught us off guard.”
Buchholz also hit 52 percent of its shots in the first half to take a 41-31 halftime lead. University of Miami signee Jessica Thomas led the charge with 38 points.
“Honestly, a lot of their other kids were hitting that usually don’t hit,” Pacholke said. “At one point I looked over to one of my assistants, and he said, ‘Dang, they’re on fire.’”
Foul trouble added to Freedom’s woes. All of its starters ended with at least three personals, including senior guard Whitney Turntine-Ivy (nine points, five rebounds) picking up her fifth with 54.2 seconds left in the game.
The Bobcats took command when Emery went to the bench for most of the second quarter with two fouls.
Freshman guard Nari Garner was forced into action and responded with seven points.
“She’s going to be phenomenal for us,” Pacholke said of Garner. “She’s committed to the game. She’s going to come back, just like Taylor. Taylor was great as a freshman, and she came back better.”
The final four marks the last high school game for six Patriots seniors, including starters Neena Pacholke, Woodard and Turntine-Ivy.
“I never thought I would ever get here,” said Woodard fighting back tears. “As a freshman I thought maybe this will be the year I’d go to state, but as a junior there was a point where I sat back, and I was just like maybe I won’t ever get the chance to go to Lakeland. Coming to this school with this team and this amount of talent, it was definitely something that I’ll never forget. To just know that we got this far just means everything.”
Turntine-Ivy, overcome with emotion, added, “When we came in, we all looked at each other and said, ‘We’re really here.’ … Even though we didn’t come out with the win, I’m still happy to play with these girls, all 13 of these other girls. They make me proud to be a part of this team. The coach, all the coaches, and I’m just happy to have had the chance to even get here, to have had the chance to be a part of this program, because I don’t think there’s any other program I’d want to be a part of other than this one, because I don’t think anybody would have made me work as hard as they do.”
Pacholke pointed out that her squad was the only one in 7A making its first final four appearance.
“We’re not going to be a one-and-done team,” Pacholke said. “This is now an expectation. Taylor is coming back for two more years. She knows what it’s like now. I know she’s going to be able to carry us back here again. … We’ll be back.”
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker
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