By PATRICK CASEY
The Ponce de Leon Lady Pirates won two games in the span of 25 hours in Lakeland to capture the Rural Class A title with a 55-52 victory over Newberry in the final game of the season on the morning of Feb. 22.
The Pirates got 26 points from senior center Jasmine Flock and survived a near-meltdown at the free throw line over the final three minutes to capture the school’s third title in the sport of girls basketball in school history.
PDL nearly found themselves in overtime as Newberry’s Lasharrah Nattiel was fouled with eight seconds left with the Panthers trailing 54-52 only to miss both free throw attempts that could have tied the game. Newberry fouled the Pirates’ JoJo Carlson who hit the first of two free throws before Newberry grabbed the final rebound of the game and launched a desperation shot from 3/4 court that fell short to give the Pirates the title.
“The girls really played well. We had a 28-9 lead at half but you knew they were going to make a run. I couldn’t be more proud. Jasmine had a great pair of games, Jordan Thomas really played some good defense for us and hit a few key shots in the title game. We played a lot better than we did against Holmes County in the semi-final and we needed to if we were going to get the win,” Pirates coach Tim Alford said in a telephone interview on Feb. 25.
PDL blasted the Panthers in the first half as they ran out to a 28-9 lead as Newberry hit only 3-of-23 shots from the field during the first 16 minutes of play, including a woeful 1-of-10 from the floor to close out the half. While the Panthers were struggling, PDL was pounding the ball inside to Flock for points with Ashley Harper and Jordan Thomas providing shots from behind the arc.
Newberry got the pace of the game up in the second half and the Pirates cooled off from the floor, not hitting a three-point shot in the final half of play. The Panthers began to force ball-handling mistakes from the Pirates with aggressive defense as PDL turned the ball over 19 times in the game. Newberry’s pressure got the Panthers 60 shots from the field compared to only 38 shots for the Pirates. Newberry was unable to take advantage of the extra shots as they hit only 18-of-60 from the floor and 4-of-22 from behind the three-point line. While the Pirates did not have much luck from the field in the second half, they lived at the free throw line due to the aggressive defense of the Panthers. Newberry adopted a “pound them in the paint” philosophy to try and slow Flock’s scoring and got nabbed with foul calls several times while trying to take the ball away from the Pirates’ guards. PDL hit 24-of-36 free throws from the line during the contest (a much higher 67 percent compared to their season average of 54 percent from the line) with Flock (10-of-12) and Kaitlyn Carroll (8-of-14) leading the way with strong shooting from the pair of seniors.
Had the Panthers had any success in the first half, the outcome may have been different. The Pirates’ size and rebounding were a difficult match-up for a quicker Panthers squad that seemed a little shell-shocked after edging Hilliard 49-45 the previous morning in the semi-final. The Pirates jumped on the Panthers in the second quarter as they posted a 19-3 scoring advantage over that eight-minute session that sent the Holmes County team to the locker room with a commanding lead.
Newberry chipped away in the third quarter as the team closed the gap to 47-33 after 24 minutes of play. The Panthers kept up the hectic pace in the fourth quarter while the Pirates worked to sink as many free throws as possible to hold the lead. Turnovers over the final three minutes nearly allowed the Panthers to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat but the Pirates grabbed just enough rebounds and hit just enough shots from the charity line to secure the win.
PDL got to the title game after beating Holmes County for the third time in 2011-12 and the 19th consecutive time overall, dating back to a 50-29 loss in PDL on Feb. 4, 2003.
Ponce de Leon captured the 52-42 decision behind 17 points from Flock and another solid outing at the free throw line. The Pirates sunk 21-of-36 shots from the charity stripe in that contest as Holmes County committed 23 fouls in a game that saw the two teams combine for 40 turnovers.
“That one was ugly, but it was a win,” Alford said via text after the game on Feb. 21.
PDL led 16-11 at the half and 30-23 after three quarters of play as the edge in rebounding (40-31 for the game) and at the line allowed the Pirates to improve to 27-2 overall and send their county rival packing.
The Pirates whirlwind title saw the team win three games in five days with victories over South Walton at home and Holmes County and Newberry in Lakeland.
“This is a goal we have been working for since the end of the 2011 season and it was an extremely quick turnaround. We left Sunday, practiced Monday, played early Tuesday, then even earlier on Wednesday. We pulled back in to the campus on Wednesday night to a reception. It’s such a special group, they have a lot to be proud of,” Alford added during the Saturday interview. “It’s a good kind of tired.”
Pirates senior Kate Carroll had said after defeating South Walton in the Region 2 Final, “That was our goal, get back to state, win the title. We worked for the opportunity to play in Lakeland again and we are not going to let it slip away.”
The whirlwind trip may be over, but the Pirates will be celebrating the outcome for quite some time.
Team Notes: Flock was outstanding in the title game as she hit 8-of-11 shots from the field, 10-of-12 from the free throw line while grabbing 12 rebounds. Against Holmes County, she hit 9-of-13 free throws while grabbing 13 rebounds. Tim Alford is 378-138 after 17 seasons at the school and is responsible for two of the school’s three state titles in girls basketball. Senior Jasmine Flock ended her career with 43 points in her final two games giving her a career mark of 1,186 points scored at the school. The Lady Pirates defeated Holmes County three times during the year, 52-42 in Lakeland, 64-47 in Bonifay and 74-58 in December to claim the Holmes County Tournament. Newberry’s Lasharrah Nattiel, a senior, led the Panthers with 19 points in the title game. Her uncle, Ricky, played for the Florida Gators as a wide receiver in the 1980s. Newberry played in their first title game in school history for the girls basketball program.