Osceola County’s state playoff hopes in girls basketball now rests solely with the Gateway Panthers.

Malayna Stephenson scored 13 of her game-high 23 points in the first quarter, as the Panthers (22-6) raced past Ocala Vanguard, 72-31, to advance to the FHSAA Class 5A, Region 2 semifinals.  They will host Lake Wales on Tuesday night (Feb. 14). 

“It was a total team win for us tonight,” Panthers coach Justin Marino said.  “We did a great job hitting the threes and working the ball inside when it was available.”

Stephenson was unstoppable in the first period.  She hit all four of her field goal attempts and went five of five from the free throw stripe, in addition to dishing out three assists.  Only the hot three-point shooting of Kenaria Dowdy (three for three), kept the score relatively close at 21-15 after one quarter.

That would change in the second period.  Alyssa Marino hit three field goals – including two three-pointers – and Vanessa Diaz added three more field goals as the Panthers outscored the Knights 20-6 in the period to build a 42-21 lead.  

Stephenson added two more assists in the period to give her five in the half.  “Malayna and Vanessa are our big guns, but they – like the rest of the team – are totally unselfish,” Marino said.  “Our kids are always looking to dish to the open player.”

Gateway Panthers
Gateway Panthers
Gateway Panthers
Gateway Panthers
Gateway Panthers
Gateway Panthers

Any chance of a Vanguard rally was put to rest early in the third period. 

Stephenson added eight more and her teammates hit three-threes from beyond the arc to spur a 23-point quarter.  Stephenson’s late bucket extended the lead to 34 points and a Kiarra McCall free throw in the opening seconds of the fourth period triggered a running clock for the rest of the game.

For the contest, the Panthers shot 57 percent from beyond the arc (12 of 21) and 60 percent overall for the game (29 of 47).   In addition to Stephenson’s 23 points, Diaz and Marino added 13 each; Evana Rivera added eight. Gateway would play its reserves the entire fourth quarter.

Although the Panthers beat next week’s opponent by a 47-18 count in last week’s district final, Marino says overconfidence will not be a factor.  “We blew a regional game to them a couple of years ago when we had a two-point lead and were shooting fouls with just a few seconds left,” Marino said.  “Given the win or go home nature of tournament play, we will not taking any opponent lightly.”

While the Panthers advance, Osceola County’s other two girls’ basketball playoff teams saw their season’s end.  In Lakeland, the Lake Gibson Lady Braves downed St. Cloud (71-53) to end the Lady Bulldogs season with a 21-7 record.  It was the Braves second win over St. Cloud in six days as they won in the 6A, District 7 final last Friday, 47-38.

“We have absolutely no excuses,” Coach Chad Ansbaugh said.  “They out-played us, out-hustled us and simply beat us in every phase of the game.  It just seems like they won every 50-50 ball all night. They outworked us all night.”

Not as surprising, the eighth-seeded Harmony Longhorns saw its season end with a 70-9 loss to Dr. Phillips (26-1), the top-ranked team in all of Class 7A and the 21st ranked team in the nation.   Still, it was a terrific turnaround season for Coach Paul Strauch and the Lady Longhorns, who finished at 16-5 and won a district title after going a combined 10-42 over the previous three years.

County Notes:   The Harmony boys’ basketball team (21-5) defeated Osceola, 58-57, in the District semifinals on Wednesday night and will now face Lake Nona (20-6) on Friday for the 7A, District 7 championship at neutral site Celebration at 7 p.m.  The Longhorns will be seeking their first district championship in school history. 

In other playoff news, Celebration Athletic Director and Assistant Coach Chad Boudreaux announced that Saturday’s home Regional Semifinal soccer game with Spanish River has been moved from 7 p.m. to 4 p.m. by request of the opponent.  Celebration, the number two seed in Region 2 is 13-2-1 on the season and has recorded 11 shutouts this season and will take a six-match winning streak into the contest.