By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sports
CLEARWATER — Charlotte High School fought so hard to claw back and tie Thursday night’s Region 7A-3 quarterfinal against Clearwater, only to have its hopes of a victory snatched away in the final seconds.
Misha O’Neal hit a long jumper from the right corner with 2.5 seconds remaining to propel the Tornadoes to a 54-52 victory over the Tarpons at home. O’Neal’s game-winner came seconds after Kayla Lamb hit a runner for Charlotte to tie the game at 52 with 15 seconds remaining, but Clearwater point guard Lexie McDuffy quickly pushed the ball up floor, drove the lane and kicked the ball out to O’Neal, who was wide open.
O’Neal finished with a team-high 11 points for Clearwater, which will face Cape Coral in the regional semifinals.
“She was open but it just happens. There’s not much you can do. It just happens,” Charlotte coach Matt Stephenson said.
Charlotte’s ensuing inbounds pass was intercepted by McDuffy, but she prematurely celebrated the victory and traveled with 0.8 seconds remaining. That gave the Tarpons one last chance to tie or win it, but Kelyn Moses’ 3-point attempt from just inside half court was off the mark, sending the Tornadoes into celebration for good.
“I scheduled a tough schedule for us this year. We played some tough teams, we’ve had some tough losses, close games, but all those games prepared us for tonight,” Clearwater coach Paul Lang said.
Moses finished with nine points while Lamb scored a game-high 24 for Charlotte, which trailed by eight with 5:03 to go. Lamb was a big reason for the rally, as she scored 14 of her points in the fourth quarter with eight of them coming from the free-throw line.
Charlotte used a 12-4 to turn a 48-40 deficit into a tie game late, with eight of those points coming from Lamb.
“They didn’t want to lose tonight and that definitely showed,” Stephenson said. “This team has grown leaps and bounds from when I first got them. Earlier in the season, even a couple of weeks ago, we lose there when we’re down eight. But those girls fought. They fought and that’s all a coach can ask for. They busted their butts out there. They left it all out there. It just came down to a shot in the corner but it happens.”
Moses scored eight of her nine points in the first half and helped the Tarpons (16-10) build a 27-24 lead at the break. But the Tornadoes (21-5) turned up the defensive pressure in the third quarter, forcing eight turnovers in the period and 21 for the game.
Clearwater keyed in on Moses in the second half and she didn’t make a field goal in the final 16 minutes. Baskets were hard to come by for all the Tarpons in the third quarter as they scored just seven points in the period and headed to the fourth trailing 38-34.
Clearwater’s defensive intensity led to more open looks as Alleyah Williams, Carrie Lee and Alex Hannah all made treys in the quarter to put the Tornadoes in front. Williams, Lee and McDuffy all finished with nine points, with all of Williams’ points coming from beyond in the arc.
“I thought, honestly, they allowed a more physical game in the third quarter,” Stephenson said. “I just thought it was tougher, but still, they were down eight and still fought. They could have given up in the fourth and they didn’t. That happens. You’re playing on the road, in a hostile environment and you’ve got to be able to handle different situations. And we did but like I said, a jumper in the corner. It sucks for us.”
Alani Qualls also had eight points and six rebounds for Charlotte while teammate Taylor Kirkus scored seven points to go with five rebounds and two assists.
CLEARWATER 54, CHARLOTTE 52
Charlotte 13 14 7 18 —52
Clearwater 9 15 14 16 — 54
Charlotte (52): Kayla Lamb 24, Moses 9, Qualls 8, Kirkus 7, Bunch 4. Totals: 15(2) 20-29.
Clearwater (54): Misha O’Neal 11, Lee 9, McDuffy 9, Williams 9, Hannah 7, Jones 4, Maxwell 2, West 2, McCray 1. Totals: 18(8) 10-18.