SARASOTA – As a member of the Dunbar girls basketball team the last four years, Respect Leaphart knows nothing but trips to Lakeland for the state Final Four toward the end of February. There wasn’t a chance she was going to break with tradition her senior year.
However, it required a bounce-back game from her in the Region 5A-3 final. After not positively impacting a narrow win over Bradenton Southeast on Tuesday, Leaphart, a Southern Miss signee, took control early Friday and helped Dunbar (25-2) punch its fifth straight ticket to Lakeland with a 56-23 victory at Sarasota Booker.
“It’s tradition. Ever since I’ve been at Dunbar we’ve been to Lakeland,” said Leaphart, who finished with 16 points in a game that was never in question. “We can’t just not go to Lakeland. We put it all on the floor and left it all on the floor. We made it back.”
In keeping with tradition, the Tigers, who moved up to 5A this season, will face rival Jacksonville Ribault, which shifted to 5A as well, in the state semifinals Thursday. Ribault made quick work of Tallahassee Rickards in its regional final,
Dunbar’s dream of returning to state was almost dashed in a turnover-plagued 53-52 win over Southeast where it needed a late stop to survive. Leaphart finished with just seven points and 11 turnovers, seven of which were unforced.
The lackluster performance forced the 6-foot guard to reflect over the next three days. Her inability to finish in the paint made what should have been a double-digit win into a nail-biter.
“I had a lot of making up to do because last game was not me,” Leaphart said. “I don’t know what happened (Tuesday). I don’t care to know what happened. I just know I came back bigger and better and stronger. As a senior, I know it’s my last chance. I didn’t want to get stuck here and not make it back to Lakeland.”
Dunbar coach Dwayne Donnell said Leaphart was the missing piece Tuesday.
“We need her to play. We need her to gives us something,” Donnell said. “(Dekeriya Patterson) was steady like she was Tuesday, (Ja’Miah Bland) was steady like she was Tuesday. We defended the same. We just didn’t have (Leaphart) playing (well). It was good she showed up today.”
Leaphart and the Tigers forced four early turnovers Friday to jump out to an 8-0 lead after a Patterson pull-up jumper in the lane. Leaphart then found Patterson (14 points) on a lob and later finished off a 3-point play which put her team up 21-3 at the end of the first quarter.
Booker’s lone points in the period came on a 3-pointer as Diamond Merced was falling out of bounds.
Bland tallied 16 points as Dunbar stretched the lead to 25 points by halftime and triggered a running clock with a 35-point lead with two minutes to go in the third.
Cellexia Foster scored six points for Booker, which ended its season at 21-11.