BRADENTON -- John Harder has no illusions about what it's going to take for his Southeast girls basketball team to beat Cape Coral on the road Saturday night in the 5A-Region 3 title game.
The Seminoles (28-1) are an open book. They have no secrets and the Hall of Fame coach isn't trying to hide anything. Man-to-man defense is what propels this team and compensates for its shortcomings.
"They are not the best outside shooting team, they are not the tallest, and they are not the best team in school history. But look at what they have done," says Harder, who has won two state titles for a program that has gone to five state final fours.
The winner of Saturday's game advances to the 5A state final four next week in Lakeland.
The Seminoles play a tough man-to-man defense that has enabled them to average an impressive 19.1 steals per game.
"We've got to play aggressive defense, but we can't get crazy and get into foul trouble," Harder says. "We are a man-to-man defensive team and with that comes risk, but it's our defense that has gotten us this far. A lot of our offense comes off it."
The Seminoles' last region final came in 2011 when they lost at home 61-55 to eventual state champion Tampa Catholic. Senior DeAngela Mathis, then a freshman, started in that game, while classmates Bevin Mays and Kewshana Robinson saw action.
Southeast will try to shake up Cape Coral's Crystal Mendoza, a 5-foot-5 guard who leads the Seahawks in scoring (18.3 points per game) and assists (5 per game) and is third in rebounding (5.7 per game).
Senior guard Crystal Townsend (14 ppg) is the second-leading scorer, and senior forward Samaria Jones (6.8 ppg) is pulling down a team-high 6.3 rebounds per game.
"We start four seniors and they start three, so I don't see that much difference in experience. They lost in the region final last year and are hungry just like us," Harder said.
Cape Coral (24-5) has played a tough schedule with its losses coming to top 10-ranked Vero Beach and Palm Beach Lakes on the road. They lost to 14th-ranked Gainesville and defending state champion Dunbar.
The Seahawks lost in the region final at home last year to eventual state champion Fort Lauderdale Dillard, a perennial powerhouse that has won eight state championships.
"Their schedule is part of my worry. They beefed it up to get ready for Dillard, and then Dillard was moved to a different region," Harder says. "I made our schedule as competitive as I could, thinking this was our best chance to get to states. We went into the Willie Clemons Classic and played the three toughest teams we could."
Mathis, a two-time Bradenton Herald Player of the Year, is averaging 14.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game while Robinson is tops in scoring (14.9 ppg) and rebounding (8.2 rpg). The other double figure scorer is Mays (11.9 ppg), a guard.
Janelle Gould sparks the defense with a team-high 137 steals and leads the team with 98 assists. Mathis and Bevins have 89 steals, and Breyonna Reed has 81.
"This is one of the best defensive teams, if not the best defensive team, I've ever had," Harder said. "I don't know if we could win without our defense. Our defense has to turn into our offense. We have to be able to control our offense through our defense."