By:  J. Daniel Pearson; Photos By:  Daniel Rivera

As expected, top-seeded Gateway (17-6) will host second seeded Lake Wales (16-9) on Friday night for the FHSAA Class 5A, District 7 championship.  But the 54-35 semifinal win on Wednesday against Lake Region did not come without some controversy.

That game was marred by a series of flagrant fouls on Lake Region that caused officials to halt the game with 51 seconds still remaining on the clock.  Gateway was sent to the locker room and stayed there until the opponents exited the building.

“Really hate to see that type of behavior in any game and it was a hard way to see the contest end,” Gateway coach Justin Marino said.  “But the officials absolutely did the right thing.  There’s no place for that type of play and you would not want to see any players hurt.”

The entire game was chippy, but the real trouble started when Panther forward Malayna Stevenson was knocked down on a hard foul that was later upgraded to a flagrant foul.  A technical foul on Lake Region for complaining after another foul was followed two minutes later when sophomore Alyssa Marino was sent to the floor on another flagrant foul.  With 51 seconds left another Gateway player was knocked down, causing the referees to meet and suspend play at that point.

After a slow start, Gateway would grab the lead 8-6 on a rebound and stick back by Marino, who would score nine points in the quarter.  It would be a lead the Panthers would relinquish.  Evana Rivera would get hot for the Panthers in the second quarter, hitting five of six from the field, as Gateway extended the lead to 12 at the half, 30-18.

The game would get tight in the third quarter when Stevenson would pick up her third foul of the game on a charge at the 4:15 mark.  That would spur a 9-2 run as Lake Region would cut the gap to 35-29.  But the Panther defense did not allow a point in the final two minutes of the period and quick baskets by Marino and Rivera helped push the lead back to 13 at the end of period, 42-29.

Normally a good outside shooting team, the Panthers made just one of 14 shots from behind the arc in game but dominated on the inside – hitting 19 of 33 shots (58%) from close range.  “Our goal was to not fall in love with three pointers,” Marino said.  “We knew they liked to press and we knew if we could break that press it would lead to some opportunities inside.”

Still it was the Panther defense that played a bigger role in the win.  

Gateway packed the paint with five defenders, forcing long range shots.  When Lake Region tried to go inside, the Panthers blocked the passing lanes and forced numerous turnovers inside. “We also knew from film they were not a very good shooting team, by packing the middle we forced them to try to beat us from the outside,” Marino noted.

For the game, Marino finished with 20 points, Rivera added 19.  Stevenson, who missed the better part of two months with a severe ankle injury, added 12 – 10 of which came from the charity stripe.  “She (Malayna) in nowhere close to being 100 percent,” Marino said.  “But she is out there gutting it out for her teammates.  Right now we are relying on our sophomores (Marino and Rivera) to carry the scoring load.”

Gateway will now host Lake Wales in Friday’s district championship game.  The number two seed, Lake Wales defeated Davenport in the other district semifinal, 56-44. “We haven’t played them this year, but we met twice last year and we know their style and know what to expect,” Marino added.

Five other county girls’ teams were involved in district semifinal action on Wednesday night.  

Harmony advanced to face Tohopekaliga in the Class 7A, District final with a two-point home win over Celebration.  The Tigers (16-3), who are enjoying the best season in that school’s history, are the top seed in the district and will host the Longhorns after a 50-39 win over Lake Nona.  St. Cloud will play Lake Wales in the 6A, District 7 final after a big 87-24 win over Bartow.  City of Life (2A, District 8) advances to its final against Victory Christian with a 58-51 win over Moore Haven.

Several Osceola County’s boys’ teams take center stage on Thursday night.  

In Class 7A, District 6 Tournament at Lake Nona, Osceola (12-11) takes on Poinciana (15-6) in one semifinal at 5 p.m.; while top-seeded Harmony (20-5) takes on Lake Nona (6-19) in the other semifinal.  St. Cloud (19-5) takes on Bartow in Lakeland, Fla. in a 6A, District 7 semifinal; while Gateway (10-11) moves on the semifinals to play Lake Wales after Tuesday night’s 70-44 win over Lake Buena Vista in the quarterfinals.