Sports Editor

GHS GB Justin Marino and team

Gateway Coach Justin Marino talks his team through a time out in Thursday's 46-35 District 9A-7 semifinal win over Ridge.

Gateway’s girls basketball team returns to the regional playoffs tonight for the first time since 2010, and just the second time in the school’s 34-year existence.

The Panthers earned the spot with a come-from-behind 46-35 win over Ridge in last week’s District 9A-7 tournament semifinal.

Gateway (17-7) couldn’t find an answer for state-ranked Haines City in Friday’s district championship game, and the 52-32 loss means the Panthers are now road warriors, headed to Fort Pierce Central for tonight’s Region 2 quarterfinal.

Gateway won the game over Ridge for two reasons: a second-half uprising from leading scorer Anissa Tuitt — who scored 19 of her 24 points after halftime — and the team’s 20-of-24 shooting performance from the free throw line.

GHS GBB Anissa Tuitt

Gateway's Anissa Tuitt scored a game-high 24 points in the win over Ridge.

“We normally shoot free throws well, but even that surprises me,” GHS Coach Justin Marino said after being shown the shooting stat. “Anissa really turned it on. I told her before the game that to win she’d have to probably shoot it 25 times, and in the first half she was passing the ball, so I stressed it again at the half.”

Tuitt, who became the first Panthers’ girls player to reach 1,000 career points late in the regular season, said she got a little vocal during halftime as well, when Gateway went to the locker room trailing 20-12.

“I told everyone to forget everything and play like it’s 0-0 because I didn’t want to end my career that night,” the senior said.

She had the ball at the end of the game, and when as the clock ran out her face lit up with emotion.

“It was an amazing feeling, knowing we earned a playoff spot as a team,” she said.

It didn’t look that way in the first quarter; an inability to make shots, rebound or take care of the ball (the Panthers committed seven turnovers) as Ridge (16-8) built an 11-3 lead after one. But Gateway stabilized in the second quarter, then spent the third quarter chipping away at the lead, tying the game at 22 late in the third on Kaitlyn Cardoza’s lay-up.

Ridge made just one field goal in the third quarter and Gateway kept the screws tied on defense to start the third quarter, not allowing another for the first six minutes of the fourth as the Panthers went on a 13-2 run to open a double-digit lead that they’d keep thanks to their free-throw shooting down the stretch.

Gyo Ramos and Neri Moreau added nine points for Gateway. Center Sade Bass led the Bolts with 14 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.