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Horns close in title game

Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 12:12 pm

Wekiva hits free throws at the end
By Ken Jackson
Staff Writer
Osceola County will have to wait longer to welcome home a state girls basketball champion.
The Harmony Longhorns, the first Osceola County team to play for a title in exactly 20 years, played with energy and moxie for four quarters Saturday at The Lakeland Center, but it spent the entire Class 7A championship game chasing the perpetually one-step-ahead Wekiva Mustangs and lost, 59-48.
The 11-point victory margin for Wekiva, which opened in 2007 and won seven games last year before getting infused with some transfer talent, was deceptively large. The Mustangs (26-6) led by 13 early in the fourth quarter, but behind the 3-point shooting of Julia Ingler and the slashing drives of Rebekah Fitzpatrick, the Longhorns (27-4) twice cut the lead to four points.
But, the Mustangs made 16 of 18 free throws in the game’s final four minutes to bring home the school’s first team sports title.
It was a finish that HHS Coach Paul Strauch did not enjoy.
“Losing (stinks),” he said. “There’s nothing more to say about that. Wekiva played incredible. They had a plan and executed it. At times, so did we. But these girls just kept battling, and I knew they would, they don’t ever give up.”
Sophomore Kyla Allison, Wekiva’s primary ball handler and a transfer from Dr. Phillips, led all scorers with 23 points (including 13-for-18 from the line) and added nine rebounds and six assists. Ingler scored 21, all coming from beyond the three-point arc (7-of-16). Harmony hoisted 33 three-point shots (making nine), necessitated by Wekiva’s 2-3 zone defense that clogged the lane.
“It wasn’t our goal to shoot that many threes,” Strauch said. “They’ve got length and they play a 2-3 for a reason. Preparation is our strength and we had a plan, but Wekiva changed how we play the game.”
Wekiva Coach Tommie Butts said he was concerned about Harmony’s outside shooting, but not enough to go away from the Mustangs’ zone defense.
“I’ve never seen a team that shoots the ball so well from outside as Harmony, I tip my cap,” he said. “The 2-3 is our identity, but we stretched it out and adjusted a little. But mostly we stuck with the game plan and what we believe in.”
Harmony led only once, 8-7, 77 seconds into the game after Ingler’s first 3-pointer. Wekiva answered with back-to-back 3s as part of an 11-3 run into the second quarter. Its lead reached nine before Ragen Dotson (six points, two blocks) hit a last-second layup to make the halftime gap 23-16.
Ingler opened the third and fourth quarters by connecting from outside, but Wekiva spent the entire half answering Harmony’s several attempts to steal the momentum. Yolizma Cupidan (16 points, eight rebounds) scored every point of an 11-3 run the Mustangs closed the third quarter with, including a 3-pointer that made it 36-25 heading to the fourth quarter.
The lead grew to 13, 41-28, early in the fourth quarter, but Stephanie Baur (5 points) and Ingler hit 3s while Wekiva missed four straight free throws to pull Harmony within seven, 41-34, with 4:29 to play. Guard Rebekah Fitzpatrick (12 points, 8 rebounds) slashed to the hoop for a pair of three-point plays to pull Harmony closer, 44-40.
But, Wekiva’s Allison was deadly from the free throw line, a complete departure from the way the Mustangs shot free throws for the first 28 minutes when they were 4-for-13.
Harmony’s Abby Fitzpatrick (4 points) hit a pair of free throws to make it 50-46 with 46.9 seconds left, but Wekiva scored the next nine points from the foul line to finish.
“Wekiva hit all their free throws at the end and that’s what good teams do,” Strauch said.
The Longhorns shot just 28.6 percent from the floor Saturday; Wekiva was barely better at 32.7 percent but it hit 7 of 17 3-pointers (41 percent).
Harmony started four seniors; oddly enough the only underclassman to play more than eight minutes, sophomore Abby Fitzpatrick, was the only player on either side to play all 32 minutes.
The four seniors said after the game that, like Aerosmith said, life is a journey and not a destination.
“This has been an amazing run,” Dotsen said. “We accomplished a lot of steps to get here.”
Said Rebekah Fitzpatrick: “I’m happy I got to do this with these girls. They’re my best friends.”
Baur said they would probably play basketball again together, “Just in a smaller arena.
“This isn’t it for us, because we’re probably going to hang out tomorrow, and the day after that,” she said to the chuckles of reporters gathered.
Ingler, a four-year starter who has already locked up a spot with Rollins College next year — joining former teammate Marie Gilbert — said she finally got to answer the “What if?” questions that began four seasons ago.
“This has been a great journey,” she said. “I came in as a freshman and people talked about what was possible and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get to (the state tournament).’ Now I can say I know what it’s like.”
Over the past three seasons, the Lady Longhorns compiled a 72-13 record and won three district championships and a regional title.
Harmony was attempting to become the second Osceola County team to win a state girls basketball title. St. Cloud won the Class 4A title in 1994.
Osceola made trips to the state tournament in 2001 and 2004, but it did not reach the finals either time.
The basketball team joined Harmony’s volleyball, soccer and softball teams (all in 2011) as state tournament qualifiers.
The softball team returned to states last year.