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Deerfield Beach coach Kenny Brown discusses his team's 36-31 win over Largo in the semifinals at the Gulfshore Holiday Hoopfest. Andrew Sodergren/Naples Daily News

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A highly anticipated matchup between a pair of high school boys basketball teams with contrasting styles certainly lived up to its billing.

The defending champion Wilmette (Ill.)-Loyola Ramblers, with their fundamentally sound offense and hard-nosed defense, took on the explosive athleticism and skill of Lehigh in the semifinals of the Gulfshore Holiday Hoopfest at Golden Gate High School on Friday nigh.

Loyola roared out to strong starts in both the first and second halves, and those outbursts proved to be enough in a hard-nosed, defensive game.

"It's teams like that that make you wish there was a shot clock in high school basketball," Lehigh coach Greg Coleman said. "They run their offense so well, they make you play defense for 45 seconds or more each time it seems. That might have factored in to our struggles on offense. Give them credit. They're a great basketball team that is extremely disciplined."

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Kevin Cunningham scored a team-high 14 points -- drilling a trio of 3-pointers in the first quarter - to help the Ramblers sprint out to a 16-7 lead after one quarter.

Lehigh began to hit some shots in the second quarter, which allowed the Lightning to employ their full-court press, which seemed to frustrate the Ramblers at times before they adjusted. The Lightning tied the game at 21 on a three-point play by Delshawn Green, but never could take the lead. Loyola led by four at the half and used an 8-0 run to start the third quarter in building their biggest lead at 36-24.

"They did a good job of taking away our momentum," Coleman said. "We never could get over the hump. We battled back, but we didn't hit enough shots to win."

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Lehigh (10-2) will play in Saturday's third-place game against Largo in a rematch of last year's regional championship -- won by Lehigh in a 61-59 thriller.

"During the regular season, you need to have a short memory," Coleman said. "It's going to be another tough game against a team that will be motivated. We don't have any time to dwell on this one."

Deerfield Beach 36, Largo 31: Deerfield Beach entered its semifinal game against Largo in the Gulfshore Holiday Hoopfest expecting a real battle, and that’s exactly what they got.

In a game dominated by defense, the Bucks (10-3) hit a number of key free throws down the stretch and ran just enough clock to keep the Packers at bay.

“That was definitely a ‘by any means necessary’ kind of game,” Bucks coach Kenny Brown said. “Just keep fighting and grind it out. Tip your hat to (Largo), they played well tonight. Very tough guys, it was  a great test for us.”

Corey Carpenter scored nine points to lead the Bucks, hitting a floater as time expired in the third quarter to give his team a 29-26 lead entering the fourth quarter. The Packers eventually tied the score at 29 but could never take the lead, with Robinson hitting five of six free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.

“Coach told us to expect a scrappy team, a defensive team, but we just had to come out with the win,” Carpenter said. “You just have to believe in yourselves. We go through those situations every day in practice, and that’s why we’re able to keep our composure late in the game. Defense wins championships, and we played great defense tonight.”

The Bucks are now just a win away from a Hoopfest title in their first appearance in the annual event at Golden Gate High School.

“Very well-run tournament. We’ll definitely want to come back,” Brown said. “Great competition. Playing here is definitely going to help us as we go down the stretch.”

Deerfield Beach doesn’t have a true go-to superstar player, instead relying on an unselfish brand of team basketball. Its rotation runs nine or 10 players deep most nights, making it possible for a new hero to step up every night.

“We’re very deep. We rely on everybody out there,” Carpenter said. “That makes it tough for other teams to just key on one guy.”

Largo's Zhahidi Robinson scored 12 points to lead all scorers. Teammate Isaiah Bellamy added nine points, but no other Largo player had more than three points.

"I always tell the guys, if you protect the basketball and hit your free throws, you're going to give yourselves a good chance to win," Brown said. "That's what we did tonight. Nice team effort, although it wasn't always pretty."

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