When Dunbar girls basketball coach Dwayne Donnell took his first timeout three minutes into the third quarter of his team’s Class 5A semifinal at The Lakeland Center on Thursday, the deficit was just four points.
But by then, it was more than that.
Jacksonville Ribault had taken control, using a 13-2 run that included six Dunbar turnovers to build momentum in what proved to be a decisive stretch.
The Trojans never let it go from there, withstanding a late Tigers rally to earn their third trip to the state finals in four years, beating Dunbar 51-44 inside The Publix George Jenkins Arena.
“In the locker room we talked about do or die,” Ribault head coach Shelia Pennick said. “We were going to come out of the locker room and make it happen or we would have to go home. And we didn’t want go home.”
Ribault (27-1), which has won 10 state championships since 1988, moves on to face Bishop Moore in the Class 5A Finals. The Tigers (25-6) fell to the Trojans for the fourth time in five seasons.
One simple adjustment made all the difference.
Out of halftime, Pennick went to a 1-2-1-1 zone press that denied Dunbar’s middle outlet. It ultimately forced six turnovers— nine in all — over the first three minutes in a number of ways: passes across the court, passes down the sideline, and double-teams in the corners.
“We had everything we could have asked for in that first half. We executed,” Donnell said. “We had a bad two minutes. A bad two minutes of basketball.”
It turned a seven-point halftime lead for the Tigers into a small deficit, which grew to nine, 38-29, following a Nola Carter breakout and lay-in with 4:10 left in the quarter.
“I told my kids, if we don’t turn the basketball over they can’t beat us,” Donnell said.
Ribault junior Rennia Davis, who had 10 points in the first half but struggled with three fouls, scored the Trojans’ first seven points out of half, hitting circus-level jump shots.
She rarely came out in the second half, giving Dunbar fits.
“I have a lot of length and that’s trouble for defenders, so I tried to go to the basket but maybe go to the pull-up a little more so I didn’t draw a charge,” she said.
She also hit a 35-footer with time expiring in the first quarter and finished with a game-high 27 points, 11 rebounds and five steals. Davis had 17 points in the second half alone.
Ribault’s Day’Neisha Banks added 13 points and 11 rebounds.
The Trojans dominated in the third quarter, outscoring the Tigers 22-6. Dunbar won the second and fourth quarters.
“We tried to work too fast,” said Dunbar forward Ja’Miah Bland, who had eight points. “And once we started to do that, we threw the ball away. We weren’t executing our plays right. We did a bad job of holding the ball.”
The second half erased a nearly perfect 16 minutes for Dunbar. More than anything, the Tigers looked like they wanted the game more. They dove on loose balls, tipped passes and made life hard for the Trojans, who scored just seven points in the second frame.
Senior Respect Leaphart played some of her best basketball of the year, scoring 15 of her team-high 16 points over the first two quarters. She was 6-of-8 from the line and had four rebounds.
“I don’t think they hustled or played harder than we did,” she said. “We basically beat ourselves.”
In the fourth, the Tigers had one last chance, cutting a 10-point deficit with 4:18 left to seven with 2:31 remaining.
Bland scored in the pain to cut it to five, and then the Tigers forced a turnover. Keva Shay Edison scored on a layup and was fouled, but missed on the foul shot. The deficit was three points, 47-44, with 1:49 to go.
But it would get no closer. Davis nailed a step-back jump shot with 46 seconds left that pushed the lead to 49-44.
“The only thing I would change today is Dunbar won the basketball game,” Donnell said. “That’s the only thing I would change.”