Commentary | Complete team returns Harder, Southeast to mountaintop

adell@bradenton.comFebruary 23, 2014 

LAKELAND

State champs.

Crown 'em.

Shout it from the rooftops.

From start to finish, the postseason was a demolition derby for the Southeast girls basketball program.

With the exception of that overtime nail-biter at Cape Coral, the Seminoles won six postseason games by an average margin of 24.3 points.

The next closest game was the 52-35 triumph over Fort Walton Beach Choctawatchee in Saturday's Class 5A title game.

They did it with a no-name defense that dazzled basketball purists and befuddled opposing coaches.

The four senior starters on the team each possess a distinct attitude, but leading scorer DeAngela Mathis has the type of attitude that spurs winners.

"You got to be confident. You can't come out here scared," she said moments after her final game. "This is the Lakeland Center. It's not just some gym. Plenty of people came to support us and you have to show up."

Maybe now some college coaches will want to take a chance on the Noles' four senior starters, who have only one scholarship offer from a four-year school among them.

If not, legendary Southeast coach John Harder should contact Donald Trump and suggest he open a college and take the group as a package deal.

Hey, Trump loves winners and these four seniors (Mathis, Keshawna Robinson, Bevin Mays and Janelle Gould) know how to win. Throw in senior sixth man Daisha Kelly and sophomore sparkplug Breyonna Reed for insurance, and this is an offer he couldn't refuse.

The Southeast girls have won four state titles, including three under Harder. They have been to six state final fours and made this the Mecca of girls basketball along the Gulf Coast.

To put it into perspective, the only other girls basketball programs to win a state title from Manatee-Sarasota are Palmetto and Bradenton Christian with one each.

Southeast is the only Manatee County team to win a state boys basketball state championship, and Booker is the only one from Sarasota County.

This one took a little time to get. It has been 24 years since the Southeast girls won their second state title in 1990. But the Noles advanced deep into region play nearly every season.

This might have been Harder's best job of coaching and his easiest.

There were no superstars like the other final four teams, but when these girls took the floor, they refused to be intimidated and played with an extreme amount of poise.

"These kids didn't have anything easy for four years, and they went out and got what they wanted (state title). It was easy to coach these girls when the games started because they were so loose and into it," Harder said.

This was the result of a man and his players turning their passion for basketball and love for each other into a triumphant ride.

And Harder, who just finished his 30th season, made it clear he is not done.

"At this age, this is amazing. It feels like it was first time all over again," Harder said after the game. "I couldn't believe all the orange and blue in the stands and the support for these kids. These girls are such hard workers. I am coming back. I am having too much fun not to return."

If you know this program, you know it's about more than just winning. Harder has been a father figure to so many of his girls down through the years. There will never be another like him.

But it's a mutual admiration society and both are grateful to have each other.

"Winning is never for yourself. It's always for the team and your school," Mays said. "Now we are going to down in history and we will have a big board with our pictures on it forever."

Choctawatchee lost in the 6A final last year and has one of the best post players in the state in 6-foot-3 Nadia Fingall. The Noles, mainly Mathis, limited her to five points (10 below her average).

"It was a pride thing. Everybody expected her to come out here and dominate, and we weren't going allow that. She is just one player. We have five," Mathis said.

Winners come through in big moments and that's what these girls did.

Robinson, who shot 54 percent from the foul line for the season, converted 14 of 17 from the stripe in the two games. Named the Final Four MVP, she had 17 rebounds and 32 points

Southeast forced 42 turnovers and had 33 steals. The Seminoles did not allow a 3-pointer with its two opponents missing on a combined 14 attempts and shooting a combined 22-for-72.

But the constant was Harder, who promises to be around awhile longer.

"I want to be with the freshmen; we have and see them through," Harder said. "As long as they need me and want me here, I am staying. I am lucky to have this job, and I am grateful to be here. ... It's about being in the best place in America. My blood is orange. ... There'll be a day. It's coming. But it's not tomorrow."

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7056, Follow him on Twitter @ADellSports.

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