Dan PearsonBy:  J. Daniel Pearson
For Positively Osceola

Sometimes, the last step is the hardest. Gateway’s girls’ basketball team (15-4 overall, 6-0 in OBC competition) entered Tuesday night’s game with St. Cloud needing just a win to clinch their first Orange Belt Conference championship in school history. But Jaelyn Bonilla hit a three-pointer with 1:16 remaining and Gateway missed third final eight shots of the game as the Lady Bulldogs pulled off a 60-55 upset.

The win lifted St. Cloud to 12-6 on the season and 5-0 in OBC play. The Lady Bulldogs can now wrap up their 11th OBC crown with wins over Osceola and Liberty later this season. They will be heavily favored in both games.

“We didn’t play particularly well, especially in the first half,” St. Cloud Head Coach Chad Ansbaugh said. “I told our kids during a third quarter timeout that we were still in the game and this moment was not too big for them. This is why we put them through the meat grinder in practices and this is why we play a tough schedule. I told them we have no pressure on us, go out and play hard and have fun.”

It was all Gateway early.

The Panthers would take control of the game in the first half, as Nari Moreau and Malaya Stephenson each scored 12 points and the Panthers grabbed double digit leads at the end of both the first (23-13) and second quarters (38-26),

Although the Bulldogs would score the first six points of the third period, Gateway answered with a three from Stephenson and a bucket off a steal from Moreau to stretch the lead back to 11. “We started off strong in the third and gave up two quick baskets and were basically back to where we started from,” Ansbaugh said. “I really thought at that point there was a chance the game could get away from us.”

But from that point forward, St. Cloud would take control of the game.

Danigzy Mantilla scored seven points in the third quarter and Haley Collins added five and six rebounds as the Lady Bulldogs closed the gap to 50-45 after three quarters.

Both teams would grow cold in the fourth quarter before Stephenson’s three-pointer gave Gateway a 55-46 lead with two minutes remaining. St. Cloud would whittle away, however, cutting the gap to 55-53 on back-to-back threes from Bonilla and Mantilla. After getting a defensive stop, Bonilla would then hit her second three-pointer of the quarter to give St. Cloud its first lead of the night.

Gateway would continue to misfire on the offensive end of the court and would be forced to foul. St. Cloud would miss the front end of two consecutive one-and-ones, but Collins and Johnson would grab offensive rebounds of both misses as the Lady Bulldogs retained possession. “Honestly that was the game,” Ansbaugh said. “We made those free throws we put the game away but both of those rebounds were huge. They kept the ball in our hands.”

Gateway missed two more shots down the stretch and that resulted in two more quick fouls, but this time Mantilla made four straight free throws at the line to put the game away.

For the contests, Mantilla led all scorers with 23 points and the sophomore guard added 12 rebounds and a steal. “Typical game by Danzy (Mantilla) she was all over the place,” Ansbaugh said of his sophomore guard. “She certainly made her share of mistakes tonight but she plays so hard you can overlook those lapses.”

St. Cloud also got double figures from Emily Lockett with 14 and 11 from Collins, who also had 13 rebounds and two blocks.

Gateway had 20 from Stephenson, 16 from Vanessa Diaz, and 14 from Moreau.

“The loss was a disappointment,” Gateway head coach Justin Marino said. “Bottom line is that our best players seemed to disappear at the biggest moments. The most important thing is we learn from this loss because we have a lot of tougher games coming up.”