Oxbridge defeats Cardinal Gibbons to advance to state title game

7:04 p.m Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 Sports
Oxbridge #24 Alexa Zaph gets a rebound in front of Boca Raton’s #15 Grace Alfieri at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach on January 24, 2018. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

As they walked, dejected, from their post-game press conference after a devastating loss in the Class 5A state semifinals last year, Oxbridge Academy’s Aaliyah Stanley looked at fellow sophomore Alexa Zaph and made her a promise.

“I said, ‘If we return here next year, we’re not losing,’ ” Stanley said Wednesday.

“You said, ‘We’re going to return next year,’ ” Zaph interjected. “You said, ‘We’re going to be back on this court next year.’ ”

Stanley, Zaph and the ThunderWolves fulfilled that promise. Oxbridge dominated Fort Lauderdale-Cardinal Gibbons in a 67-44 victory, setting up the opportunity for the program’s first state championship. The ThunderWolves will face Orlando-Lake Highland Prep on Thursday at 4:30 p.m.

“Our message after the game is: ‘Congrats,’ ” Wolfe said. “We cheered for about 10 seconds and we talked about our game plan for tonight, which is going to be film study. … Last year was a really, really tough lesson for us, and they know that they have a job to do.”

Oxbridge took the lead in the first quarter and never surrendered it. Gibbons kept the game close through the first half, but the ThunderWolves built a 10-point lead by intermission.

In the third quarter, Oxbridge got hot from behind the arc, hitting five three-pointers in the quarter’s first five minutes. The ThunderWolves hit 13 threes in the game, shooting 52 percent from three-point range.

“The Golden State Warriors were out there today,” Chiefs coach Kevin Gordon said.

Stanley and Zaph paced Oxbridge in scoring, with the guards notching 23 and 20 points, respectively. Forward Kaylon Smith added 11 points and brought down five rebounds.

In last year’s state semifinal loss, the ThunderWolves took a double-digit lead into the fourth quarter before surrendering it to eventual state champion Orlando-Jones. They had a 20-point lead after the third quarter this time around, and they made sure to hold onto it.

“There’s no stopping, no looking back,” Zaph said. “We’ve got to play like it’s 0-0 every single quarter. Never look at the scoreboard. … We learned our lesson.”

Wolfe and several players said the ThunderWolves’ loss in the state semifinals motivated them through grueling offseason conditioning and the entire season. With one win separating them from a ring, was it worth it?

“Obviously,” Smith said, “it was worth it.”