South Broward has faced several situations that could have kept it from making a return trip to Lakeland.
But over the course of a schedule replete with challenging opponents, the Bulldogs’ faith in each other hasn’t wavered.
“We go by a motto, ‘The joy of the Lord is our strength,’ ” senior forward Shante Walker said. “We can’t let anybody steal our joy or let anything come between us.”
South Broward’s poise showed again Friday afternoon as it overcame a slow start and defeated Orange Park Fleming Island 50-35 in a Class 8A state semifinal at The Lakeland Center.
The Bulldogs (27-3) earned a rematch with Winter Haven (28-4) — the team that eliminated them in a state semifinal last season. The two state powerhouses will clash Saturday at 5:30 p.m. as South Broward tries to win its seventh state title, and Winter Haven attempts to repeat as champs and claim its fourth all-time.
“We’ve traditionally been one of the top programs in South Florida and the state, and we think it all starts with how you think,” South Broward co-coach Richard Walker said. “Whether it’s the fans, your opponents, the officials, you are the one that has the power on the basketball court.”
South Broward struggled early, shooting only 31.3 percent in the first half, and trailed by one midway through the second quarter.
But a team that faced potential elimination a week ago before rallying from a 15-point deficit against Fort Lauderdale in the regional finals eventually recovered its form.
Senior guard Natalia Leaks, who finished with a game-high 20 points, hit some big shots to help the Bulldogs take the lead into the half and eventually pull away in the fourth quarter. Leaks also had a game-high six steals.
“I think Natalia has been underrated,” Walker said. “She’s been consistent all year long for us. I expected her to play big for us especially in transition.”
The Bulldogs used their size advantage in the paint to out-rebound Fleming Island 45-36 overall and 23-16 on the offensive glass.
Shante Walker, South Broward’s leading scorer who is averaging 15.9 points per game, struggled in that department Friday with only five points. But Walker made up for it on the defensive end with 11 rebounds and two steals.
Alexis McClain also had 11 points and Tianna Ayulo had eight points and five rebounds.
South Broward is hoping to add to its rich tradition Saturday if it can win its first state title since 2008.
Two notable faces from that storied history — Tamara James and Krystal Saunders — have helped the Bulldogs earn that chance. The two Bulldogs’ standout alums are assistant coaches and in James’ case, she has made the time despite having ventured into politics and recently become the mayor of Dania Beach.
FI (28-3): Burke 6, Durden 1, Sinsel 15, Labas 2, Robinson 7, Mas 2, Rozier 2. SB (27-3): McClain 11, Walker 5, Leaks 20, Ayulo 8, Sadaka 2, Brown 1, Edema 2, Simpson 1. Half: SB 22-18. Three-pointers: Sinsel 5, Walker. Rebounds: Walker 11. Assists: Ayulo, Burke 3. Steals: Leaks 6.