BROOKSVILLE – This one felt different. A year ago, it was all new, collecting the first district championship in team history.
But on Friday night, Hernando Christian Academy’s girls basketball team still had plenty to celebrate. The Lady Lions took control in the second half and rolled to a repeat, downing Ocala-St. John Lutheran in the Class 2A, District 4 final on their own court, 41-32.
“It’s a good feeling,” HCA head coach Mike Drummond said. “Last year was like relief, because we finally got it done. This year, almost I expected to win. No disrespect to anybody that we played, no disrespect to (St. Johns). They played a great game. A closer game maybe than we had figured at first, because I think their man-to-man defense kind of threw us into a befuddlement there; in that second quarter, we really struggled.
“We’re looking ahead a little farther this time. It’s very satisfying, but at the same time it’s kind of a different feeling than last year.”
The top-seeded Lady Lions (23-2) certainly received a challenge from the third-seeded Lady Saints (18-10), who had upset second-seeded Seven Rivers Christian in overtime, 49-44, a night earlier.
HCA initially picked up where it left off after Thursday’s 66-43 semifinal win over Tampa-Bayshore Christian, jumping out to a double-digit lead in the first quarter. When Lauren Zappone hit a long jumper, the Lady Lions went in front 14-4, but would go nearly the entire rest of the half without a field goal.
St. Johns proceeded to go on a 13-0 run, jumping ahead 15-14 on Kristen Reed’s jumper around the six-minute mark of the second quarter. Abby Jackson’s basket in the final minute ended HCA’s drought from the field and provided a 19-17 advantage at the intermission.
The Lady Lions regrouped at halftime and responded with a strong third quarter, pushing the lead to 30-19 on a layup by Jackson.
“I think that we slowed our offense down a little bit. Because I think when we got in the second quarter and they threw the man-to-man on us, we kind of panicked, got a little hot potato going there,” Drummond said. “We wanted to not get in the offense and not allow the screens to get set up. We were kind of rushing everything.
“At halftime, we told them, ‘Look guys, just slow down just a little bit, and let’s not gamble on defense.’ Because if we’re not getting the steals like we were trying to get, because they’re scrappy like we are, kind of a mirror image of us. And they get down the floor and transition pretty well, too. But if we stay in front of them and play defense, and force them into half-court offense, they’re going to struggle a little more than we did. That’s basically I felt the way the second half went.”
Lucia Arrieta banked in a shot at the buzzer for the Lady Saints’ lone field goal of the third, making it 30-21, but the visitors could never rally back down the stretch. Zoey Trawick paced St. Johns with eight points, five rebounds and seven steals. Arrieta added five steals.
Senior guard Cayla Phillips led the Lady Lions with 14 points, five rebounds and five steals. Milly Jackson added 11 points, four boards, three assists and four steals, while Shyann McElwain pulled down 10 rebounds.
“It feels amazing,” Phillips said. “I was thinking about it at the beginning of the season, I was like, ‘If we can do it again, that would just be great.’ And then go further this time; it’d be awesome to go to state and win.
“As a senior, you get kind of emotional about it because it’s like you’re winding down to some of your last games. But it’s been fun overall.”
“We’ve been working all summer for this. All of us girls worked really, really hard and I’m really proud of us,” Milly Jackson said. “At the beginning of the season, we all wanted our seniors to get a chance to come back and really enjoy this. So, it’s really amazing.
“Stay hungry. We never are satisfied. Our coach tells us every time after a game, ‘Are you guys satisfied?’ And there’s not one girl on our team that’ll say yes. They want more.”
Under the new state series assignments, there are no regional quarterfinals in 2A. So, HCA will host a semifinal at the Lions’ Den against Jacksonville-Seacoast Christian Academy on Thursday at 7 p.m. A year ago, the Lady Lions advanced all the way to the Elite Eight.
“We’re going to enjoy this over the weekend and then we got to get back to work on Monday,” Drummond said. “I feel good for our seniors because they’re going to get another home game and that’s always the gravy when you get this far. At least this time we have an idea of what’s going to happen and we’ve been here before, so that’s a good thing.
“The sky’s the limit. You’ve got (defending state champ) FAMU out of the picture, Academy at the Lakes is not in 2A anymore. But there are some really quality teams over in Orlando that we’re going to have to face. But I think our chances are better than last year at getting to maybe that Final Four and going a step further.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.