Dunbar’s Respect Leaphart (20) puts up a three-pointer during a girls basketball game against Cardinal Newman at the FHSAA State Finals, Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, in Lakeland, Fla.(Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
As Dunbar coach Dwayne Donnell left his postgame press conference, putting the Tigers’ dominant 61-39 Class 4A semifinal win over West Palm Beach Cardinal Newman behind him, Newman coach Dennis Miles stopped him.
“You guys are the standard-bearers,” Miles said as he shook Donnell’s hand.
And Dunbar (24-4) proved as much again at the Lakeland Center in punching its ticket to the state finals in a game that was never in question.
The Tigers will play for their second state crown in four years at 8:05 p.m. Wednesday, but they won’t have to go through perennial powerhouse and nemesis Jacksonville Ribault, which was upset by Orlando Lake Highland Prep in the first semifinal.
For Donnell, who’s been preparing his team for Ribault since the summer, it wasn’t much of a disappointment.
“Their dream was to play for the state championship. It could have been middle-schoolers from Egypt, it didn’t matter who they’re going to play tomorrow,” Donnell said. “They get the chance to end their careers with a possible state championship.”
“We came in with one and we want to go out with one,” said Kiara Desamours, who was one of four Tigers to reach double digits.
Dunbar forced 10 of the Crusader’s 16 first-half turnovers in the first quarter, jumping out to a 24-3 lead. The Tigers pushed the lead to 38-11 at halftime.
Senior point guard Keri Jewett, a Southern Mississippi signee, scored 11 of her team-high 15 points in the first quarter on 4-for-6 shooting.
“I’ve just been ready since the beginning of the season. I’ve definitely been ready since Friday (when Dunbar won a regional title),” Jewett said. “I woke up this morning like that.”
The Tigers shared the ball early and often. At one point, they ran four different offensive sets and four different players scored.
“How can you ask for a better start to a basketball game?” Donnell said. “Our kids just got up and grabbed them. They took a little steam out of them from the beginning and made the contest a lot of easier for us. … We didn’t give them a chance to get adjusted to everything going on in Lakeland.”
Desamours, a Lamar signee, and Dekeriya Patterson tallied 14 points apiece and Ja’Miah Bland chipped in 11. Dunbar shot at a 56-percent clip from the field for the game.
In their last two trips to Lakeland, the Tigers lost in the semifinal in 2013 and in the final last season. Both losses came against Ribault.
The losses have driven the team, especially the senior class.
“Losing, it hurts,” senior Regine Cooper said. ” … Sometimes you might need to lose for a lesson and you come back even stronger and greater. That’s why we’re so much hungrier this year. For a lot of us, it’s our last chance to play ball and we’re going to make the best of it.”