ST. PETERSBURG -- The State College of Florida basketball team was where it wanted to be.
Trailing by three with less than five seconds left in their biggest game of the season, the Manatees had the ball in their best player’s hands and he had a clean look at the basket.
Unfortunately, John Miller’s 3-point attempt bounced off the side of the rim, and SCF’s season ended on a disappointing note with a 79-76 loss to host St. Petersburg College on Tuesday night in the Suncoast Conference Tournament final.
The victory sends the 19-9 Hawks to the state tournament while SCF finishes its season at 10-15. The Manatees also lose their three top players in sophomores Miller, Josh Mason and Markee Teal.
“We had the shot that we wanted and we just didn’t hit it,” SCF head coach Reggie Bellamy said. “It was a tough situation down the stretch, but we wanted to be in a one-possession game and we were able to do that with an opportunity to win it or go into overtime. The ball just rimmed out.”
SCF trailed the entire second half though it was able to tie the game at 60 with 7:18 remaining on a drive by Mason. But SPC came right back on a layup by Ernest Wiggins less than eight seconds later and never trailed.
The Hawks seemed to have the game wrapped up when they took a 77-72 lead with 36 seconds left on two free throws by Eric Williams. But SCF wouldn’t quit.
After a free throw and two misses at the charity stripe by the Hawks, Teal drove into the teeth of the SPC defense for a layup and converted a free throw to cut the Manatees deficit to 77-76 with 14.2 seconds remaining.
SPC came back with two free throws by Aaron Martin to push the lead back to 79-76 with 10.4 seconds left. SCF got the ball down court when Miller launched his shot from the right side just beyond the arc and he misfired.
“It just didn’t go in, that’s what happened,” Miller said. “I believe we could’ve won that game with all my heart, but we just struggled. It’s a road game and it just wasn’t meant to happen. It was rough we couldn’t hit our shots and fatigue was part of it. They haven’t played in a week and were fresh.”
SCF defeated Hillsborough 78-68 on the road Monday night to reach the conference final. The Manatees won that game with their free throw shooting converting 26 of 32 attempts.
Against SPC, free throw shooting, which has been the team’s Achilles Heel most of the season, came back to haunt the Manatees.
SCF had 30 field goals to 27 for SPC, but was 14 for 24 from the charity stripe while the Hawks dropped in 19 of 29. The Manatees also struggled from 3-point land missfiring on eight of 10 attempts while SPC buried six of 20.
“We fought and it was a grind back and forth and we just couldn’t get over the hump and take the lead,” Mason said. “I am not sure why. We just couldn’t get that one bucket to put us ahead and get those shots to fall.”
Miller led SCF with 22 points and 10 rebounds after scoring 29 against Hillsborough. The only other Manatees player in double figures was Teal, who tallied 17 and grabbed nine rebounds. Mason had seven points and five assists. Reggie Baity had nine and Derek Robbins eight points. SCF outrebounded the Hawks 43-35.
“At the end of the game, we got what we wanted and didn’t make it and that’s basketball,” Bellamy said. “We had some mental mistakes, but for the most part we followed the game plan and that is a tribute to our sophomore leadership. We didn’t do a good job on hitting our free throws and rebounding. As the season went on we got better and have a lot of big men coming back. We will evaluate everything.”