Clearwater closes in on first title

Tornadoes, in their eighth state trip in the past 12 seasons, hold off Leesburg to reach final.

Published February 22, 2007

LAKELAND - Brittany Carannante stared down a Leesburg defender and drove around her as if she were a traffic cop waving her into another lane. Keona Dixon continuously slithered through the Yellow Jackets defense.

Clearwater's stationary sets were gone, replaced by the thrill ride of finger rolls, fallaways and no-look passes. It was a style that helped the Tornadoes beat the Yellow Jackets at their own game.

Suddenly, the top is down, the pedal is to the medal and Clearwater is hitting top speed when it counts, suggesting the Tornadoes might have a chance to win their first state title.

A 6-0 start Wednesday night propelled Clearwater to a 69-61 victory. The Tornadoes (28-2), appearing in their eighth final four in the past 12 seasons, face Winter Haven in the championship Friday at 7 p.m. at the Lakeland Center.

"I'm so proud of these girls," Clearwater coach Tom Shaneyfelt said. "No one had us penciled in to get here."

For most of the game, the Tornadoes steered steadily along, prevailing with familiar resolve and muscle on defense, sufficient patience and control against the fierce Leesburg press, ceaseless hustle and tournament-ready depth.

The key was Clearwater's dominance inside. The Tornadoes constantly drove to the basket with ease and grabbed their share of rebounds. In the first half, Clearwater scored 16 off second-chance baskets.

"There is no way to sugarcoat it," Yellow Jackets coach Mark Oates said. "We did not play well defensively."

But after building a 34-28 lead at the half, the Tornadoes watched as Leesburg (28-2) made a furious rally.

With 6:27 remaining, Pearl Johnson hit two free throws to give the Yellow Jackets their first lead, 50-49. No matter. On Clearwater's next possession, Lauren Lee scored and drew a foul, hitting a free throw for a three-point play to put the Tornadoes ahead for good.

"I just knew I had to step up at that moment," said Lee, who scored a team-high 17 points and had 15 rebounds.

Clearwater's J'Beria Davis also played well with 15 points and 16 rebounds.

"J'Beria had the game of her life," Shaneyfelt said. "But really, everybody played well."

Class 3A: AHN falls

LAKELAND - The last shot of Gianna Messina's high school career flew off her fingertips with one minute remaining - and bounced off the rim.

It was a 3-pointer, one the Academy of the Holy Names guard thought was "dead on," and would have cut Tallahassee Florida High's lead to 12.

Instead, Florida High grabbed the rebound, raced back and made a layup.

Seconds later Academy coach Casey Higgins hollered to her team, "Don't foul!" Seconds after that it was over: Florida High 74, Academy 55.

For Academy it was an end to a stellar four-year run led by Gianna and her identical 5-foot-6 twin Catriana, who helped lead the Jaguars to a 27-4 record this season.

Ultimately the Jaguars, who had no starter taller than 5-7, had no answer for Florida High's inside game, namely 5-11 Varisia Raffington and 6-foot Jayme Warner, who combined for 38 points and 16 rebounds. The twins combined for 34 points and 14 rebounds.

Scott Purks, Times staff writer

Clearwater 69, Leesburg 61