The scoreboard high above the floor of The Lakeland Center said 90 seconds remained in Saturday’s Class 5A girls state basketball final.
Everyone knew it was already over.
Southeast was about to win its fourth state championship, the first since 1990 and third under venerable head coach John Harder. So just before the buzzer sounded on the Noles’ 52-35 victory over Fort Walton Beach Choctawhatchee, Harder pulled his four seniors, together since they were freshmen, off the floor individually.
First came Bevin Mays.
Then Keshawna Robinson.
Then DeAngela Mathis.
Capping it off was Janelle Gould, the Seminoles’ quiet but quick floor general.
Before each could grab a seat, Harder wrapped them in a bear hug, his face growing red and moist with tears as each player walked off the floor for the final time in her prep career.
“That’s what it was about — for them to say goodbye to their fans, one by one,” Harder said. “They greeted me, and I’ll never forget that hug for the rest of my life. It was something special.”
No one will forget the Seminoles either.
They lost Nov. 22 to Sarasota, a Class 7A state semifinalist, and never lost again.
They didn’t make a 3-pointer during the semifinals or finals of the state tournament.
They didn’t make the region playoffs last season but walked away from The Lakeland Center on Saturday with the Class 5A state championship trophy in tow.
Could anyone have scripted this any better?
“This has been such a long, long, long journey,” said Mathis, who closed her career at Southeast with 15 points, three rebounds and two assists. “Plenty of things have gone wrong; plenty of things have gone right. But you’ve got to come together. This is the big league. This is something that’s been a goal we’ve set for ourselves since freshman year, since we all got here. We’ve all been playing the same time, been around each other for the same time, been around this man (Harder) for the same time. There have been some ups and downs, but this is work at its best.
“This is an unbelievable feeling.”
Southeast (30-1) hadn’t stepped foot in the cavernous Lakeland Center since 2004, long before the Noles’ current group ever slipped on the school’s trademark orange and blue jerseys. But the Seminoles didn’t look the least bit tight Saturday, never trailing again after the Indians took a quick 4-2 lead early in the first quarter.
They never let the Indians, a Class 6A state runner-up last season, get comfortable. Southeast triggered a 9-2 run in the first quarter and closed the half by scoring eight of the final 10 points to take a 28-21 lead into the locker room.
The Indians cut the deficit to 28-25 just after half but watched their 6-foot-3 forward Nadia Finall get whistled for her fourth foul. Then came another big Southeast run: 11-4 to close the quarter.
“They just played so hard and they just played so well,” Harder said. “They saved their best games for the biggest stages, for the biggest of games.”
Aside from the quick hole, the Noles never trailed during the state semifinal and final, winning the games by a combined 42 points. They got a pair of huge games out of Robinson, who totaled 32 points and 17 rebounds during the final four, and finished with 33 steals.
“They’re a great team, great coach,” Indians coach Don Brown said. “They’re quick, they’ve got depth on the bench. ... Their quickness gave us fits here and there.”
The teams were a combined 0-for-16 on 3-point attempts, eschewing long range jumpers for high-percentage shots from their post players. As they have all year, the Seminoles generated points off their defense, scoring in transition while working the ball in the paint for Robinson (12 points) and Mathis (15), while Gould dished out a team-best three assists.
“Instead of letting up, we kept pulsating,” Harder said. “I told them right before the game that it was our game, it was our turn. These kids did it.”
There was plenty of emotion on Southeast’s side of the gym, where the Noles accepted the championship trophy and medals. It was the last time the group’s core four of senior starters would be wearing Southeast orange together, a point not lost on the players.
“I’m still trying to get it through my head that we actually won it, we actually did it,” said Gould, who had 10 steals over the two games and carried the championship trophy into the interview room Saturday. “I’m just happy to be with this team. After all we’ve been through, I love them.”
As he did during Southeast’s other trips to the state finals, Harder wore the orange and blue plaid jacket given to him by his father-in-law in 1984 — though he didn’t have to wear it for 11 years prior to this weekend.
It was worth the wait.
“It feels pretty good for him to bring it back out of the closet,” Mathis said. “It’s been up for many years. And I’m glad to be on the team to bring it back out.”