By PATRICK CASEY
The South Walton girls basketball team would not let a fourth meeting with district rival Baker stand in their way from earning a trip to Lakeland this week as three players scored in double figures in an impressive 51-30 victory over the Gators in the Region 2 Final that was played at South Walton High School on Feb. 14.
Like the previous three meetings, the game was close for a quarter as the score was knotted at 8-all after the first eight minutes of play as the two teams combined to make only 6-of-30 shots from the field.
South Walton began to take control in the second quarter as senior center Savannah Slade scored eight points in that period while the Lady Seahawks defense clamped down once again, allowing Baker to make only 4-of-30 field goals in the first half, to pull away for a 22-13 halftime lead.
Slade and junior Gracie Ricci added seven points apiece in the third quarter as the host squad increased the lead to 38-21 after 24 minutes of competition with junior Allee Coble scoring seven of her 10 points in the game in the fourth quarter to finish off the Okaloosa County squad.
The story for Baker was the same as it was in all four meetings against South Walton. The Gators could not stop Slade and they could not make shots. Baker ended the contest a woeful 10-of-69 from the field, getting plenty of chances to score but watching shot after shot go anywhere but through the net. The Gators had 25 more shot attempts than South Walton (the Seahawks were 17-of-44 from the field) but had only one player reach double figures, Ayajah Coleman who had to score seven of her 13 points in the final quarter after the game was out of reach.
Baker made just 8-of-16 shots from the free throw line while South Walton was 14-of-23 with Ricci and Coble hitting all seven of their attempts in the fourth quarter after the Gators resorted to fouling late in the game in hopes that South Walton would stumble at the line.
South Walton looks poised to make a run at their second state championship under veteran coach Kevin Craig after losing to Trenton in last year’s state semifinal.
Craig was quite pleased with his squad’s fourth win over the Gators as the Seahawks moved to 22-7 on the year while Baker saw their 2016-17 season end with a 20-6 mark.
“Defense set the tone. I did not realize they (Baker) got off that many shots from the floor. Our defense has really grown from early in the year. We work hard on not allowing open shots and getting in good position to get rebounds. This group has worked really hard to get back to Lakeland and get another chance at a title.”
Slade finished with 18 points while Ricci had 13 and Coble 10. Hayley Seible had eight points with several key baskets off of fast break opportunities. The Seahawks did have 26 turnovers to just nine for Baker, leading to extra chances for the Gators that they could not make pay off.
The victory sends the Seahawks to their third Final Four in the last five years with South Walton trying to duplicate the magic that led to a state championship at the end of the 2012-13 season.
South Walton will likely be a heavy favorites in the match-up with 18-8 Mayo Lafayette County, a team that has only two seniors but four juniors, and narrowly squeaked by Williston in a 24-22 Region 4 Final last week. The winner of the Seahawks contest will square off with the winner of the Holmes County-Wildwood game for the Class A title on Wednesday afternoon at 5 p.m.
For those fans not making the trip to Lakeland, the Class A contests can be watched online at www.nfhsnetwork.com for a fee of $9.95.
Team Notes: Coach Kevin Craig is in his 13th season at South Walton and holds a record of 250-115 in that time. Craig is in his 35th season of coaching and holds a career record of 759-288 in that time. Craig has coached teams to eight Final Four appearances with three state championships. The Seahawks are 8-5 in six previous playoff appearances. Slade has scored 486 points in 28 games this season, averaging 17.4 points per game. In two seasons at the school, she has scored 942 varsity points in 57 games for an average of 16.5 PPG. Only Ashlee Stephens has reached the 500 points-scored mark in a single season as she scored 580 in 29 games during the 2005-06 season. The Seahawks average 54.8 points per game on offense while allowing only 38.7 PPG on defense. The Seahawks are 19-0 against Class A teams this season. Slade had 29 points against Bozeman in the first round playoff game with the Bucks for the most points scored by a Seahawks player so far this season. Lafayette County was the state runner-up in Class 2A in 2007-08 and is 1-3 all-time at the Final Four. Mayo is 25-19 in 20 state playoff appearances.