NEW PORT RICHEY - The margins are shrinking. The competition improving. After years of dominating Pasco County, Ridgewood faces a battle, night after night, to hold onto its crown.
Everybody wants the Rams.
But like always, nobody can catch them.
Land O'Lakes was the latest to fail Tuesday night, falling 51-43 to four-time Sunshine Athletic Conference champion Ridgewood.
After trailing most of the first half, the Rams stole the lead with 36 seconds left in the half and never trailed again. Neither team looked particularly sharp in the second half, however, flailing about on both ends of the court until Ridgewood (4-0) closed it out with a 10-4 run in the final five minutes.
"The scores are getting closer, everybody's getting better and we have to go out and give a great effort to win every night," Rams coach Greg Bollinger said. "I don't know if this was a great effort, but it was the epitome of winning ugly."
Land O'Lakes (2-1) is the only county team to beat Ridgewood in five years, pulling off the upset in January 2002. Though no longer district foes, the Gators well remember being swept in three last year by the Rams. For most of the first half Land O'Lakes looked ready to end Ridgewood's reign.
Point guard Roshaunda Washington's lay-up gave Land O'Lakes a 10-3 lead with 1:23 left in the first quarter. The lead held at six with 2:15 left in the second, but a 7-point run gave the Rams a 26-25 lead with 36 seconds left in the half, the lead switching on Crystal Ayers' steal and basket-to-basket lay-up.
Ridgewood never trailed in the second half, three times battling back after Land O'Lakes closed within one. The Rams were 8-of-32 from the floor in the first half and 17-of-54 for the game. But the Gators were worse. Land O'Lakes' offense, already struggling in the second half, disappeared when Washington fouled out with 3:26 left.
Ayers, the Rams' point guard, led all scorers with 15 with six steals, three rebounds and an assist. But she was 3-of-12 from the floor.
"It was the worst game of my entire life," Ayers said. "But after we fouled out Roshaunda Washington, nobody else on their team could handle the ball."
It was a game, a win, Land O'Lakes wanted badly.
"This is a big game," coach Greg Robinson said. "We've only beaten them one time, and every time we come here we have the girls and the opportunity to do it, and every year, every game, it's the same thing.
"But they're a good team. You can't that that away from them."