LAKELAND – Dillard is back.
A year after having its four-year state championship streak snapped, Dillard’s girls’ basketball team proved it was only a brief interruption for one of the nation’s elite programs.
As it did in the semifinals one night earlier, the Panthers led nearly wire-to-wire and defeated Jacksonville Paxon 51-35 in the Class 5A state final to secure their ninth state championship overall and fifth in a six-year span.
Dillard’s tally of championships was already the most for any South Florida school and is now one short of Jacksonville Ribault’s state-record 10 titles.
"The girls had the right mindset to win this all season," Dillard coach Marcia Pinder said. "We endured so much last season so I’m very proud of these girls."
Dillard improved to 9-0 all-time in state championship games all under Pinder, who now has the most state championships of any coach in state history.
"This is really about them and I’m so happy for these girls because they worked so hard all year," Pinder said. "The girls fought through injuries tonight and we overcame so crucial mistakes early in the game and kept our composure."
Dillard (30-1), ranked No. 9 nationally by USA Today, stormed through its schedule losing only to Desert Vista High School of Phoenix. The Panthers are a likely candidate to be invited to the National High School Invitational in New York later this year. Dillard participated in the tournament in 2013.
Pinder credited the team’s trip to the Nike Tournament of Champions Classic in December where the Panthers suffered their lone loss of the season as the catalyst for the team’s stretch run.
Dillard finished the season on a 20-game winning streak.
"I cherish that experience we had in Arizona because it really brought this team together and let us correct the mistakes we were making to that point," Pinder said. "They made sure to get the job done no matter how long they were on the court. The seniors got it done and now it’s up to the juniors to not let the tradition down."
Some of those talented juniors included Jacaira Allen, who led the Panthers on Saturday night with 14 points and nine rebounds. Guard Jamesha Paul, one of only three seniors on the roster, had 13 points and eight rebounds.
Dillard got a tougher challenge from Paxon (25-7) than it did during its 44-point mercy-rule win over Bradenton Southeast in Friday’s semifinal. But following a 10-0 run before halftime, the Panthers pulled away for good in the fourth quarter after Paxon began to unravel.
Two of the Eagles’ players Mackenzie Brigman and Kitana Stokes each drew technical fouls during an 8-0 Dillard run that grew the Panthers’ lead to 22 points with 3:55 left in the fourth.
Dillard kept its composure throughout and dominated on the boards with a 45-31 edge in rebounding.
"The whole season we didn’t care if a player had 30 points or just two points," junior guard Destiny Frazier said. "We just wanted to get it done. The Arizona trip brought us together as a team, and that one loss helped us come back to Broward and it was easy after that."
Frazier and other Dillard players were elated to be a part of a squad that put Dillard back on a state championship level.
"It’s great knowing that we also have contributed to this school’s history," Frazier said. "We love walking into the gym and seeing all the pictures and trophies. And if we do get invited to play in New York, we have to stay hungry and go after it in practice to win that too."
PAX (25-7): Wade 5, Wheeler 11, Stokes 2, Emmanuel-Wright 15, Marion 2. DIL (30-1): Paul 13, Frazier 3, Allen 14, Wyatt 6, Parson 6, Ti. Wilks 6, Lee 3. Half: DIL 26-18. Technicals: Brigman, Stokes. Fouled out: Wade. Three-pointers: Wheeler 2, Lee. Rebounds: Emmanuel-Wright 12. Assists: Parson, Ti. Wilks 3. Steals: Parson 4. Blocks: Wade, Parson 2.
STATE GIRLS’ BASKETBALL FINALS
Class 8A: Miami High 44, Orlando Colonial 37
Class 7A: Palm Beach Lakes 58, Apopka Wekiva 40
Class 6A: Pensacola Pine Forest 46, Naples Barron Collier 28
Class 5A: Fort Lauderdale Dillard 51, Jacksonville Paxon 35
Class 4A: Orlando Lake Highland Prep 68, Fort Myers Dunbar 62 (OT)
Class 3A: Miami Country Day 77, Seffner Christian 59
Class 2A: Tallahassee FAMU 75, Boca Raton Grandview Prep 45
Class 1A: Freeport 46, Wildwood 36