CAPE CORAL -- Going to state.
Doesn't matter how you get there or what it might look like. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for Southeast fans this was a Mona Lisa, albeit with a few wrinkles.
Displaying tears of joy, the players on the Southeast girls basketball team didn't care what label you put on their 54-49 overtime victory against host Cape Coral on Saturday night in the Class 5A-Region 3 championship game.
The Seminoles punched a ticket to the 5A state final four that begins Friday. It's the program's first trip since 2004. It was also redemption for the seniors who lost in the region final as freshman in 2011.
This shouldn't have been so hard. Southeast blew an eight-point lead in the final 1 minute, 23 seconds of regulation, allowing Cape Coral a game tying layup with five seconds left.
The Noles got the ball and raced downcourt. Bevin Mays missed a breakaway layup just before the buzzer sounded.
"I felt I had lost the game. It was on me if we lost," she said after the game.
Cape Coral (24-6) outscored Southeast 4-2 to begin overtime and led 48-46 with 2:10 left.
But that vaunted Southeast defense kicked in and limited the Seahawks to one free throw the rest of the way.
Mays got her redemption. She scored five points in overtime and dropped in 3 of 4 attempts from the free-throw line, the last two coming with 10 seconds left to account for the final score and ice the game.
Mays was 4-for-4 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter and scored six points in the period to keep Cape Coral from winning it in regulation. She scored 15 points, with 13 coming in the second half, and was 7-for-8 from the charity stripe.
"I thought I had lost the game by missing the layup and said, 'OK I am going to help win it in overtime.' I was running too fast to beat the lock and missed it," Mays said. "Free throws win games and I hit them. When I was at the line in overtime, I told myself I have to make up for it. If we would've lost, it would've been my fault."
DeAngela Mathis hit big shots all night to keep the Noles close when they were struggling on offense in the early part of the game. The senior took game-scoring honors with 24 points, had seven rebounds and shot 11-of-24 from the field.
"For everybody who reads newspapers, free throws win games. I mean it," Mathis said. "You have to make them, and then it's all about heart. If anything, we have heart. It was a very emotional game and when they got ahead after we were up eight we got down a little."
Mathis tied the game at 48 on a fast break after a Cape Coral turnover and then drove in for a layup off another Seahawks turnover to give the Noles the lead for good at 50-48 with 1:19 remaining in overtime.
Using a suffocating man-to-man defense, Southeast led 19-13 at halftime, holding the Seahawks to 6-of-22 shooting. The Noles seemed to be in control when they led 43-35 with 1:23 remaining in regulation.
But Cape Coral scored nine points on four layups and a three-point play by its leading scorer, McKenna Beach, who finished with 17 points. During that stretch Southeast went 2-for-6 from the line and had a turnover and Mays missed basket.
"I never shook and never felt upset or depressed," Southeast head coach John Harder said. "I said at the beginning of the year we needed to be a little taller to go to state and needed a sixth man, and they proved me wrong. We had five seniors in there at the end and I thought we would be in good shape to win in overtime. Our girls have had lots and lots of heartache, and they weren't going to be denied tonight. It's all on them."
Taller Cape Coral dominated the boards, outrebounding Southeast 27-22. The Seahawks had a big edge on the offensive glass 14-5, which enabled them to put up 64 shots to 45 for Southeast.
But the Noles converted 17 of 24 attempts from the free throw line and shot 17-for-45 from the field. Cape Coral was 8-for-12 in the fourth quarter, but 1-for-7 in overtime and shot 20-for-64 for the game.