Lakewood already knew how much the game mattered.
The Spartans were traveling to play Gibbs, their bitter neighboring rival. This grudge match was for more than just bragging rights.
A berth in the Pinellas County Athletic Conference championship game was at stake. So was a boost in the Florida High School Athletic Association rankings.
But there was even more meaning, at least for Lakewood.
This was the first time the Spartans had played since a car accident Christmas night left five Lakewood students, including two girls basketball starters – Alahni Lovett and A’shiya Youngblood – initially in serious or critical condition.
Lovett, now recovering at home, attended the rivalry game, held this past Wednesday. Youngblood, who was removed from intensive care a week ago, watched via live stream from her hospital room.
The Spartans canceled their remaining games during the Winter Break. They spent that time visiting their teammates.
They also voted to continue playing, not just for rah-rah reasons but knowing the repetitive act of dribbling – and shooting – a basketball would allow the memories of seeing their teammates recover from multiple injuries to sink somewhere deep in their subconscious.
As Lovett and Youngblood improved, the burden for the remaining players became a little lighter.
Still, there were questions. Would the 19 days elapsed since their last game be enough for them to be emotionally mended? Or would playing be an excruciating, heartbreaking effort?
“It’s been difficult,” Lakewood coach Necole Tunsil said. “We’re still trying to pick up the pieces.”
Tunsil grappled with their own emotions.
“This whole basketball thing has been a fog for me,” said Tunsil, who leaned on canceling the season if the decision was solely up to her. “I feel bad. I feel guilty. I feel selfish. I feel helpless. We’re playing a game and one of my players is still in the hospital. It’s a lot.”
Piece by piece, the Spartans reassembled their game in a set of limited practices.
But how would it look in a game, especially one of this magnitude?
Early on, Lakewood rebounded with authority. The Spartans made defensive stops. They hit key shots.
They even had a 14-13 lead after the first quarter.
Tunsil got back into a rhythm as a coach. She was in perpetual motion, using gestures and her booming voice to get her points across – to her players and the referees.
She also clapped with approval at her team’s play.
It did not last.
The Gladiators knew how big the moment was, too.
They were trying to reach the conference championship game for just the second time in school history (the first was in 2009).
Gibbs rallied, outscoring Lakewood 15-4 in the second quarter to go ahead 28-18 at the half.
The Spartans cut the deficit to four in the third quarter but could not get any closer.
The Gladiators took advantage, their lead ballooning to more than 20 points by the fourth quarter en route to a 54-33 win.
Depth. Fatigue. Emotions. All of it added up for Lakewood.
“Maybe this was my fault,” Tunsil said. “Maybe it was my ego. We’ll just go back to the drawing board.”
There were hugs and handshakes afterward.
Then the Spartans headed to the locker room.
Lovett was with them.
“It means a lot to have all the support from everyone,” Lovett said. “It’s tough not being on the court, but I wanted to be here with my team.”
Tunsil praised the team for its first quarter performance, admonished them for their second half collapse.
They wrapped up their postgame meeting by holding hands. They thought of their teammates now sidelined. They thought of their season, their motivation.
They also know it does not get any easier.
This weekend, Lakewood hosts its annual MLK Classic Tournament, one of the toughest in the state.
“The girls have a purpose,” Tunsil said. “For them, for all of us, this is bigger than basketball.”