It wasn’t easy, but the top-seeded Gateway Panthers (23-6) used a game high 24 points from Malayna Stevenson to escape a serious upset bid by Lake Wales to record a 46-37 win and advance to the FHSAA Region 2 Finals.  The Panthers will host Port Richey’s River Ridge (21-8), who defeated Jones in the other semifinal. Tipoff at Gateway’s Ramirez Gym is 7 p.m. Friday.

Just 13 days since getting blown out by the Panthers by a 47-18 margin in the district semifinals, Lake Wales put up a much stronger effort Tuesday night despite a slow start.  Gateway would score the first seven points in the game and lead 11-2 after one quarter but the Highlanders used three, three-point field goals by Jameria Johnson to spur a 9-2 run that cut the gap to 13-11 midway through the second.

Although the Panthers committed five turnovers in the period and made just four field goals, a three-pointer by Vanessa Diaz and a pair of buckets by Evana Rivera kept Gateway in front by five at the half, 20-15.

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Gateway Panthers Girls Basketball

It was at that point that Gateway coach Justin Marino switched strategies and Stevenson took control.  With the offense spread out, Stevenson took advantage of mismatches and hit five of six shots in the third period – scoring 11 points as the Panthers built double digit leads several times in the period.

Still Lake Wales responded each time, pounding the ball inside to Virginia Squires, who scored eight points in the period as the Highlanders cut the gap to four heading into the final quarter, 34-30.

Stevenson would hit two more driving layups to up the lead to 38-30 to open the fourth and from there the Panthers would use a four-corner stall offense to run the clock down.   Gateway would make six of seven free throws down the stretch to help ice of the game.

“Give Lake Wales a lot of credit, they simply could not hit a bucket the first time we played.  We built an early lead tonight, but they kept their composure and knocked down some big shots.  When that happened they started playing with a lot of confidence and gave us all we wanted,” Marino said.  “They were playing a lot of tight man-to-man defense the entire game, but they were also doing a lot of switching.  We recognized this created some mismatches, particularly with Malayna.  We spread the floor and she was able to take advantage of those mismatches.”

For the contest, Stevenson hit 11 of 14 shots from the field, including eight of nine in the second half.  Diaz added 12, making all four of her free throw attempts in the fourth while also running the point in the spread offense that allowed the Panthers to maintain possession and limit the Highlanders to just five field goal attempts in the fourth quarter.

Gateway shot 44% for the game (18 of 41), but hit just three of 14 from beyond the arc.   “We are usually a pretty good three-point shooting team,” Marino said.  “Tonight we were not hitting those shots and had to adjust, but basketball is always about making adjustments,”

Robinson led Lake Walkes (10-13) with 11 points, Squires added 11.

Gateway advances to the regional final for the second year in a row.  They just missed out on a trip to the Final Four last year, losing a 37-35 decision to Bishop Moore.  A win on Friday would put the Panthers in a state semi-final game next Thursday.