By Christopher Lawlor
NEW YORK – Size versus speed told it all. That’s exactly the way top-seeded Hamilton Height Christian Academy (Chattanooga, Tenn.) drew it up.
The Lady Hawks seized control in the second quarter and pulled away for a 62-49 in over fourth-seeded Winter Haven (Fla.) in the GEICO High School Nationals semifinals at Christ the King High School’s Father John Savage Memorial Gymnasium.
The Lady Hawks will play second-seeded Westlake (Atlanta, Ga.) or third-seeded Central Valley (Veradale, Wash.) in Saturday’s final that tips at 10 a.m. EDT on ESPN2. It is the second straight trip to the GEICO Nationals title game for the Tennesseans.
True to their pregame hype, Winter Haven wanted to establish a running game. That meant pressure defense and quick outlet passes to spring the break. The Blue Devils were derailed with poor decisions but their scrappy play kept things interesting.
HHCA (25-2) remained patient in the opening 10 minutes. The height advantage was apparent and the halfcourt sets were run to perfection. HHCA rolled a starting five that include players 6-1, 6-2, 6-1, 6-1 and 6-7. That’s nearly a four-inch advantage across the lineup.
Winter haven reduced the deficit to six points on three occasions in the final period but Tennessee-bound Jazmine Massengill had other thoughts. At 53-47 and Winter Haven pushing with a throng of supports in full throats, the McDonald’s All-American knifed through three defenders for a layup and on the next possession dropped in two free throws and score bounced to 57-47 with 2:20 left.
After that it was a matter of time before the Lady Hawks could celebrate—albeit briefly.
Esmery Martinez , a 6 feet 1 junior forward, produced a double-double with 17 points and 18 rebounds; Elizabeth Balogun had 14 points; and Massengill manufactured 13 points seven assists and eight rebounds. The Lady Hawks won the war of the boards, 48-34.
Zakiyah Franklin, who is an unsigned senior, tossed in 16 points but sank only 7 of 21 shots (33.3%) and Melijah Sullivan added 15 points and three rebounds. Winter Haven could not find a shooting rhythm going 17 of 62 from the floor and 5 of 23 from three-point range.
By the end of the third quarter, the Blue Devils’ frosty shooting and HHCA’s height edge gave them a 41-30 lead.
The game plan played out at the onset of the third quarter when HHCA’s Kamilla Cardoso became in the interior focus for high lobs that helped built the first double-digit lead of the game. It took nearly three minutes for the Florida’s Class 8A to get on the board on Diamond Battles’ driving layup to make it 34-24.
Battles pulled the Blue Devils within 30-22, drilling a 3-pointer that beat the first-half buzzer. Winter Haven’s woeful 9-of-38 shooting (23.7%) led to the deficit.
The Lady Hawks scored 26 of their 30 points in the paint and pounded the glass for 26 rebounds. Balogun had 10 points and Martinez added eight points and nine rebounds. They also hit 9 of 17 from beyond the arc. Franklin had nine points, but only shot 4 of 13.
Balogun canned a deep 3-pointer with two minutes left in the half expanding the Lady Hawks’ edge to nine points at 28-19.
Winter Haven pushed the pace and at times looked sloppy yet were able to open a 17-11 lead in the second quarter before the Lady Hawks regained controlled with an 8-0 run to make it 21-17 on Martinez’s putback at 4:01.
The Blue Devils maintained the early lead and were up 9-4 when Zakiyah Franklin buried a deep 3 from the corner with 4:01 left. Balogun’s five points were enough for an 11-all tie through one.
Winter Haven had issues guarding 6-7 sophomore Cardoso. The young Brazilian wound up with seven points, eight boards and three blocks but her wingspan deterred the Floridians from invading the lane.
The Blue Devils (32-2) came to New York after winning their third consecutive state championship making it the first team from Polk County to win three straight girls’ titles. Lawson’s team joined a selected group last month becoming the 12th girls’ basketball team to win at least three titles in a row after a 56-46 win over Nova (Davie) in the Class 8A final on March 3.
That chemistry that Winter Haven enjoyed in the postseason did not return after the nearly four-week layoff.