HUDSON — Lecanto shook off a sluggish start and stole its way to its first regional victory in five years.
No, it’s not that the Panthers had to pull the win out late; in fact they led most of the way. Literally their ability to steal the ball, recording 27 in the game, helped lift them to a 49-32 triumph over host Fivay in Thursday night’s Region 5A-2 quarterfinal.
“We made it probably a little harder than it should have been,” Lecanto head coach Ron Allan said. “I thought we played great defense the whole night. We just didn’t do a real good job of taking advantage of some of the turnovers that we generated.
“As the game wore on I think we wore them down just because we can go deeper into the bench than they could. They had a little foul trouble and we didn’t, so that’s a good thing.”
It was an offensive struggle for both sides through most of the first quarter. For a long stretch the score stood at 3-2 in favor of the Falcons (18-5), though the Panthers (18-5) did manage to pull ahead 8-5 by the end of the period.
Back-to-back steals and layups by Cynthia Homs and Peyton Spaulding opened up a 16-8 advantage and forced a Fivay timeout with 3:39 left in the half. Homs then had another steal and score on the ensuing possession to make it 18-8.
“That’s our game,” Allan said. “We try to put pressure on people. We want to try to shoot third-grade shots. A third-grade shot is something from 6 foot. If we can do that we’re much more successful than we are if we’re standing out there trying to shoot 3s.
“We don’t shoot the 3-ball very well. So we’ve got to take advantage of our speed across the board and try to create easy opportunities, and we did tonight. Even in our half-court offense at times we got some that were easy.”
Up 18-12 at halftime, the lead expanded to 27-14 early in the third quarter when Sydeny Spaulding stole the ball and found Peyton Spaulding for a layup.
The Falcons got within 29-21, but Grace Teitelman’s basket in the closing seconds made it 35-23 at the end of the quarter, as both teams nearly doubled their point totals from the first half.
Jasmine Henry scored six of her team-high 14 points in the fourth quarter and Lecanto maintained its double-digit edge down the stretch.
“We changed our press a little bit (in the second half),” Allan said. “We’ve got a couple different ways we like to run it. We changed it up a little bit and I think it shook them. There were a couple baskets there back to back and we knew that’s what we were going to have to do.”
Homs had an impressive all-around performance and flirted with a triple-double totaling eight points, eight rebounds and nine steals as well as three blocks. Aleiza Rome and Peyton Spaulding each scored eight points, while Hudson added five steals and Trinity Keeran had four.
Marielis Creque had a double-double for Fivay with 12 points and 12 rebounds along with four steals.
The Panthers are headed to the Sweet 16 for the first time since their Final Four run in 2016 and only the second time since 2005. They’ll travel to Orlando to face Jones in a regional semifinal and district final rematch on Tuesday at 7 p.m. Jones won the district title game on Feb. 5, 65-26.
“It’s only the second time a non-district championship team from our school on the girls’ side has made it (to the Sweet 16),” Allan said. “And that’s what I told the girls yesterday in practice. I said, ‘Look, you look up at the board at those Sweet 16 teams, only one of those was a non-district champion.’ I said, ‘So you can become one of two.’ And that’s what they did.
“I talked to them about legacy. I said, ‘This is a chance to make a legacy for this team.’”