They stood nearly motionless scattered around the basket, even as the crowd inside Booker High School Gymnasium grew louder. Ambria Rankin at the free throw line.
A pair of Palmetto teammates stood on the blocks ready to fight for the Tigers’ final chance. Four Sarasota Booker forwards stood trying to save a victory in an otherwise ugly Wednesday night game.
The already sparsely filled bleachers in Sarasota emptied even further as the Tornadoes’ raucous fans moved as close to the court as possible. With 1.6 seconds left, Booker had called a full timeout to ice Rankin. The forward needed to sink a free throw to force overtime.
Rankin dribbled three times and hoisted a shot to the rim. It smacked off the back rim and popped over the front. The Tornadoes survived for a 33-32 win. Palmetto had suffered heartbreak on back-to-back days.
“When it’s all said and done, we beat ourselves,” head coach Robert Kelly said. “They didn’t beat us. You miss 17 free throws and God knows how many layups, what do you expects going to happen to you?”
In two days, the Tigers (6-4) have lost two games by a total of two points. A day earlier in Palmetto, the Tigers suffered a one-point, Class 8A-District 11 loss to Sarasota. They traveled south Wednesday for the middle part of a three-day stretch designed to get Palmetto ready for the postseason.
The biggest takeaway so far — the Tigers close the stretch in Bradenton Thursday at 7:30 p.m. against Manatee — has been the slim margin separating Palmetto from back-to-back wins against Sarasota County’s two best teams and a pair of losses.
“We control our own destiny and the thing is that they need to understand that,” Kelly said. “If you’re going to go to the big dance you’ve got to understand that when you get in these situations you’ve got to clamp down and you’ve got to play.”
Wednesday’s loss felt like an especially missed opportunity. The Tigers’ eight-point lead during the second quarter was far and away the largest of the game, and Palmetto took a lead into halftime. At one point, Booker went nearly a full quarter without a point, failing for the final two minutes of the first quarter until the 3:31 mark of the second. Defensively, Palmetto was as good as ever and bested its already stingy season average of 37.8 points allowed.
But on offense the Tigers were plagued by the same issues that have kept them from breaking 50 in five consecutive games. Guard Anissa Washington carried the offense with 16 points, but also missed six layups — a number Palmetto tracks on its team stat sheet. Star post player Tina Stephens scored nine points and grabbed 19 rebounds, but fouled out with 4:55 remaining.
Those two accounted for all but seven Tiger points and a handful of lengthy droughts kept Palmetto from ever being able to put away the Tornadoes. Instead, Booker turned a seven-point deficit into a one-point hole with a 6-0 run to end the first half. Instead, the Tornadoes used an 8-2 run during the third to make that one-point deficit into a five-point lead. When Palmetto’s strategy is to keep a game low-scoring, it doesn’t take much for the margin of error to collapse.
“We’ve got to slow down and execute. We’re rushing everything,” Kelly said. “It’s like a tornado. It’s just going, going, going, going and not worrying about what we hit.”
Who: Palmetto at Manatee
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Manatee High School